Opinion: Georgia Senate race shaping up to be a classic Southern brawl

Georgia voters on Tuesday decked up a United States Senate contest as Southern as the sugariest of sweet teas.

What could be more Southern, after all, than a preacher taking on a football star?

It’s more than Democrat vs. Republican. More than liberal vs. conservative. Heck, it’s Sunday vs. Saturday.

Barring anything unexpected, the Peach State’s November Senate race will pit U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won a special election runoff in January 2021 to fill the unexpired term of Johnny Isakson, against Herschel Walker, who is the most celebrated football player in the history of the University of Georgia.

It is also the first U.S. Senate general election in Georgia pitting one Black candidate against another.

It is not, however, despite numerous posted news stories, the first U.S. Senate general election in history with two Black candidates.

Former President Barack Obama, in his only Senate race, defeated Republican Alan Keyes, who is Black. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, in both the 2014 special election in which he won his seat, and in his 2016 re-election, faced Black candidates — Joyce Dickerson in 2014 and Thomas Dixon in 2016. Unopposed in his June primary election, he’ll also face a Black candidate in the fall — the winner of the Democratic primary in which three women are entered.

The Georgia race is likely to become one of, if not the most high-profile Senate races in the fall, and perhaps one of the most expensive in history. Unless you’ve been asleep the last two years, you can name at least one reason. But here are several:

‘ Warnock won the special election runoff by 2% of the vote over Kelly Loeffler, a controversial appointee to the seat.

‘ The runoff win by Warnock and one in the regular Georgia Senate election runoff on the same day by Democrat Jon Ossoff, who won by 1.2%, gave Democrats 50 votes, essentially providing them control of the body with a tie-breaking vote by Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris. (The last previous Senate win by a Georgia Democrat was in 2000.)

‘ President Donald Trump lost the state by 0.3% of the vote in his 2020 re-election race and has never let the state and its election officials forget it. For Trump reasons alone, both adoration and hatred, millions of dollars will flow into the race.

‘ Trump publicly encouraged Walker to enter the race, telling a radio show in June 2021 that “he’s a great guy, he’s a patriot and he’s a very loyal person, he’s a very strong person. They love him in Georgia, I tell you.” (Walker played for a Trump-owned team in the short-lived United States Football League in the early 1980s and spoke in support of him at the 2020 Republican National Convention.)

Thus, Trump will be a factor in the race but certainly not as much of one as both he and Democrats would like him to be.

Although Walker won his Senate primary, Trump-backed candidates lost the Republican gubernatorial and secretary of state primaries. Indeed, his favored candidates didn’t even earn primary runoffs.

But Democrats, during the 2021 runoffs, still had Trump to kick around. He was still president, the coronavirus pandemic was only just getting its first vaccines and many people still were not working following earlier virus shutdowns.

Now, though, Warnock and Democrats are on the defensive. President Joe Biden is viewed negatively in polls by Republicans and more and more Democrats. Inflation is soaring. Crime is up. The Southern border is porous. Shortages are causing crises. Blaming Trump won’t be the answer this time around.

Walker, 60, was ranked No. 1 in a 2011 Bleacher Report list of the top 50 college football players of all time, No. 1 in a 2021 24/7 Sports list and No. 2 in a 2020 ESPN list.

University of Tennessee football fans of the era will never get out of their heads the account of Walker in a 1980 game against the Vols by legendary University of Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson: “We hand it off to Herschel, there’s a hole 5 10 12, he’s running over people! Oh, you Herschel Walker! My God almighty, he ran right through two men! Herschel ran right over two men! He drove right over orange shirts with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!”

Since his football career, though, public records detail that the former star made threats of violence against his ex-wife, he wrote a book describing his struggles with mental illness and he recounted how he once said he played Russian roulette with a gun at his kitchen table. He’ll also be scrutinized for living until 2021 in Dallas, Texas, and only registering to vote in Georgia the same year.

Of course, Warnock, 52, who occupies the storied pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sundays that was once the domain of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., survived his own peccadilloes — of domestic abuse and an arrest for interfering in child abuse at an abuse- and health violation-plagued camp he ran in Maryland several years ago — during his 2020-2021 race.

The preacher and the football star. Georgia voters have delivered up a Southern Gothic election story for the ages.

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