In 2004, the Republican Party needed a candidate to run against a young up-and-coming state senator from Illinois running for the U.S. Senate. Barack Obama’s GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, had unexpectedly dropped out of the race after a sex scandal. After scouring the country and hearing “no” from former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and other people, Republicans somehow landed on former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes, a Harvard-educated former ambassador and assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years who happened to live in Maryland.
Last year, the Republican Party realized it would need a candidate to run against Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who is now seeking a full six-year term as senator after having won the seat last year in a special election runoff. Republicans somehow landed Herschel Walker, a football legend and Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia, who happened to live in Texas.
Consider the blatant political cynicism of the GOP’s recruiting an out-of-town, old-timey Black superstar with no political experience to come home and play upon white voters’ sense of nostalgia and football pride. Consider the awfulness of Georgia Republicans’ hoping that the color of Walker’s skin and memories of his touchdowns would peel off just enough Black voters to help white Republicans squeak out a victory over Warnock and the Democrats.
Keyes espoused hard-line conservatism, argued with Obama over who was the true “African American” in the race and supported school vouchers and tax cuts. Walker opposes reparations, despite a finding last year that 86 percent of African Americans support the idea of compensating slaves’ descendants. He has preposterously claimed that John Lewis, the civil rights icon from Georgia, would oppose the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, even as he runs for office in a state that added restrictions to mail voting, limited drop boxes and made it harder for voters to have their ballots counted if there are problems. He has also lied about his academic record and his business record and said he's "accountable" for unspecified actions against his ex-wife, even as he says he's never broken the law. His ex-wife claims Walker put a pistol to her head and threatened to kill her.
And despite former President Donald Trump’s telling lies about Georgia, specifically predominantly Black areas in the Atlanta area, and naming the state as one of the places where the 2020 election was stolen from him, Walker claims to have never heard Trump say the 2020 election was stolen from him, telling Russ Spencer of WAGA-TV of Atlanta: "I think reporters said that. I don't know whether President Trump said that. He's never said that to me."
Walker’s winning Tuesday night’s Republican primary and Warnock’s winning the Democratic primary means this will be only the second time in modern history that two African American men will face each other for the right to hold a seat in the Senate. Two Black candidates’ squaring off isn’t the problem. African Americans ought to be on the ballot in all parties running for all positions on every single ticket. African Americans aren’t a monolith, with every man, woman and child believing the same thing, celebrating the same holidays and voting the same way. But what an insult it is to Black voters in Georgia, many of whom likely hold socially conservative views, that the GOP went all the way to Texas to find a candidate as unqualified, incoherent and dishonest as Walker.
No matter his Republican opponent, Warnock was in for a tough battle because of the majority white Southerners’ historical and consistent allegiance to the Republican Party. He won in 2020 thanks to a coalition that included the few white Georgians who vote Democratic and the majority Black and Brown voters who turned out heavily for the Democrats despite the voting shenanigans in his state, which left many of his voters standing in line for hours to cast ballots.
But despite all the things that disqualify Walker, Warnock may be in for a tough fight.
Unfortunately, Walker’s candidacy follows the modern trend in celebrity politics: The party chooses a popular political novice, gives the candidate a script, hides the candidate to protect against hard questions and prays that the candidate’s name recognition trumps whatever stupid things the candidate says or does. Republicans aren’t the only ones to try this: Democrats are guilty of this, as well, given their unsuccessful entreaties to celebrities like Matthew McConaughey in Texas and Ashley Judd in Kentucky. But the GOP has it down to a science. Following Trump's TV celebrity presidency, he is pushing candidates such as TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. At the same time, GOP lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Matt Gaetz in Florida clearly are more interested in television ratings than in substantive policy.
At least Keyes had well-thought-out political views he was willing to defend and an interest in politics evidenced by previous runs for the Senate in Maryland, where he actually lived. But, as he should have, Keyes faced accusations that he was running a parachute campaign based not on what Illinois voters wanted but on what the Republican Party wanted. Obama beat Keyes 70 percent to 27 percent, the biggest gap ever in an Illinois U.S. Senate race.
Walker doesn’t have to worry about losing in a blowout. The fact that he’s a Georgia football legend who spouts conservative rhetoric means the score will be tight.
But we should hope that the cynical play from Republicans — trying to tempt Black voters with a straw-man candidate who doesn’t even support their full access to the ballot — loses them the game.