Herschel Walker, after being defeated in the runoff for the Georgia Senate race, is now touted as another prominent example of the failure of Trumpist candidates to appeal to moderate and independent voters. This description has a fair bit of truth: Walker might not have won the GOP nomination to be senatorial candidate if not for Trump’s endorsement. But it’s a mistake to overstate Trump’s role. Trump was by no means the only Republican who promoted Walker, a candidate with numerous personal flaws that contributed to his defeat.
The former president in fact made himself scarce in Georgia in the weeks leading up to the runoff, preferring to do a tele-rally rather than show up in person. Far more than Trump, Walker’s biggest cheerleader was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who repeatedly joined Walker in rallies and, somewhat strangely, TV appearances. On those appearances, Graham seemed reluctant to let Walker speak for himself. Instead, the South Carolina orator displayed his not inconsiderable powers of verbal overkill.
In campaigning for Walker, Graham kept hitting on the topic of race by suggesting that a Walker victory would acquit the GOP of racism. “Hollywood will melt down if Herschel wins,” Graham said at a rally in October. “They’re afraid of Herschel Walker because if Herschel Walker wins, that mean we’re not racist. And if you’re a Republican, aren’t you tired of being called a racist all the time by everybody?” Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News later that month, Graham again reiterated that Walker “changes the entire narrative of the left.” Graham asked, “What happens when the Republican Party elects and nominates Herschel Walker, an African American, Black, Heisman Trophy winner, Olympian. It destroys the whole narrative.” Graham argued that “everyone in San Francisco is going to jump off a bridge if we elect him.” He added, “They’re scared to death of Herschel Walker because if Herschel Walker becomes a Republican, maybe every other young child in America of color might want to be a Republican.”
Several African American analysts were quick to point out that Graham’s arguments suggested that Walker’s candidacy was nothing more than tokenism.
Actor Whoopi Goldberg described Graham’s words as “insulting” and “ignorant as hell.” MSNBC commentor Ja’han Jones argued that “the most shameful moment in the Walker campaign came in late October, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., basically admitted he was a token Black candidate used to make the GOP look less racist.”
MSNBC host Joy Reid drew a contrast between the victorious Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker to illustrate the problems with Graham’s argument. Reid noted that “there are only two people running, they’re both black. The one that proves—if you want to say proves—that America is not racist is, clearly, Warnock. Warnock is an intelligent, articulate man, who can speak fluently, who understands the job of being a senator, who is doing the job of being a senator, gotten a bunch of bills passed that helped Georgia.” Whereas “Herschel Walker can barely put a sentence together. Herschel Walker, literally, without any irony, used the word, and I’m sorry to say this word on television, ‘coon,’ as a compliment about himself.”
Reid also made the interesting point that Graham was “not talking to black voters, let’s just be clear. Lindsey Graham has no currency among black folks. He’s talking to white voters.”
Reporting from Politico suggests that Reid is basically right, that Walker’s campaign was geared mainly toward white voters, although Walker and his wife, Julie Blanchard Walker, did in fact think the candidate’s version of conservatism had potential appeal to Black voters. Reportedly, there was a significant rift in the campaign on whether to appeal to Black voters at all.
According to Politico, both Walkers wanted “to spend significant time in heavily Democratic areas to woo Black voters, a problem that worsened in the runoff when staff wanted Walker to focus exclusively on mobilizing Republicans who had just voted for him in the general election.” The news site added: “Staffers said Blanchard Walker even suggested her husband should be winning as much as 50 percent of the Black vote in Georgia, regularly commenting that the campaign needed ‘to be getting him in front of his people, in front of his community,’ as one person working on the campaign recalled.”
This reporting makes clear that while Walker and Blanchard Walker had a naive belief in their ability to win over Black voters, the campaign team as a whole had a much more cynical view that Walker’s pitch was aimed at the overwhelmingly white base of the Republican Party.
There’s no doubt who had the more realistic view of where Walker’s real audience was. According to exit polls released by NBC News, there was a sharp racial polarization in Georgia, with Walker winning 70 percent of the white vote and Warnock winning 81 percent of the non-white vote. Breaking down the non-white vote into different ethnicities, Warnock got 90 percent of the Black vote, 58 percent of the Latino vote and 49 percent of the Asian vote. In other words, Walker’s appeal to actual African Americans was negligible.
If Walker fell short among non-white voters, it was precisely because the arguments made on his behalf by Lindsey Graham only have salience for conservative white voters, who are the ones most concerned to prove that the Republicans aren’t racist. But the failure of Walker as an example of empty tokenism should give Democrats no comfort. When the GOP offers something more than the tokenism of empty representational politics, they can in fact make inroads among more conservatively inclined people of color, as they clearly did in 2020 and in some races in 2022 (most notably Florida, where there was a measurable Latino turn to Republicans).
The lesson of Herschel Walker is one that should be listened to by Democrats as well as Republicans: You can’t take people of color for granted. You have to actually go out and woo them with substantive policies.