ATLANTA — Shelley Wynter, a Black conservative radio show host in this bustling capital of the New South, considers Herschel Walker a means to an end.
His support of the Georgia Republican’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate rests on this fact: There are 35 Senate seats up for re-election next month, and if the former football star can overtake the incumbent, Democrat Raphael Warnock, it would be a boon that could help the GOP retake the majority.
The controversies that have enveloped Walker’s campaign — including reports that he paid for a former girlfriend’s abortion, which he denies — are easily overlooked.
“Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t look so good for Herschel,” said Wynter, co-host of “Word on the Street,” with MalaniKai Massey, on WSB-FM. “But my vote is strictly about control of the Senate. Period. We need every seat.”
NBC News interviewed six Black conservatives, many of whom echoed Wynter in saying that they would cast their vote not necessarily out of enthusiastic support for Walker but more a desire to see Republicans retake the chamber, which Democrats have narrowly controlled thanks to their sweep of Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections in January 2021. The sentiment matches that of Republicans overall — concerns about retaking the majority are outweighing all else. The race between Warnock and Walker has been one of the most competitive in the country, with a poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the University of Georgia released this week showing Warnock slightly ahead at 46.4% to Walker’s 43.4%, still within the poll’s 3.1% margin of error. Real Clear Politics, which aggregates numbers from several polls, has Warnock leading by an average of a little more than 3 points, indicating a tight race.
Many Walker allies idolize him for his football career, winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia, where he led the school to the 1980 national championship. A newcomer on the political scene, and backed by endorsements from both former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the former star running back has been a polarizing figure since he won the Republican primary in May.
Since then, television ads backed by Democrats have quickly pointed out violent episodes in his past. Walker had also embellished his accomplishments, saying that he graduated from Georgia as an honor student when he did not graduate at all, and that he worked in law enforcement, when he had received only an honorary badge.
In August, he criticized President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which addresses climate change, saying there were “enough trees” in the country. In July, he falsely stated that Covid had been caused by China and arrived here when America’s clean air traveled to Asia and China’s bad air traveled to the United States. And just last week, his son Christian Walker went on social media blasting his father, who opposes abortion, for being hypocritical over the reports that he had paid for an abortion.
Still, these six Black Republicans seem unmoved, even if Black voters overall appear to present more of an uphill challenge.
Kaaryn Burton Walker — no relation to the candidate — also said she’s willing to look past Walker’s controversies because his win would serve a higher political purpose: to get more Republicans in the Senate.
“At this point, we just have to roll with it,” said Burton Walker, an Atlanta-area resident who works as a GOP political consultant. “You have to prioritize at this point. I’m not saying Herschel did this or that. … It’s just messy. And it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me, as a Black conservative, and who I support. And because I stick by Herschel does not mean I absolve him of anything he is alleged to have done. It’s not about Herschel. It’s a bigger picture.”
The Black vote was critical in turning Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election and pushing Biden to the presidency and ultimately Warnock into the Senate.
In the process, Georgia has become a battleground state — the only one in the Deep South that went blue in 2020 — and much of that is because of the growing Black electorate.
The majority of that coveted demographic has not embraced Walker, however, who has captured less than 5 percent of Black votes, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Collaborative poll released Wednesday.
Still, the race between Walker and Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church here, appears neck-and-neck, with little change in polling since the abortion allegations surfaced against Walker.
Wynter, a native of New York City who lives in Atlanta, said he “couldn’t care less about the things that have plagued” Walker’s campaign. “We want a Republican-controlled Senate,” he said, adding that the 2022 midterms for him are not “a nuanced argument about candidates and policies and qualifications. This is party politics.”
He joked that he would cast his vote while “holding my nose … and will probably close my eyes, too. But he’s getting my vote.”
Chaka Cox, 50, a lifelong Republican who works as a medical supply company supervisor and barbershop owner, was equally adamant about his support of Walker.
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” he said, adding that the controversies around Walker “haven’t been proven. It’s about mudslinging, and some of them are pretty vicious attacks.”
He said he believes the choice for Georgia Senate comes down to “which candidate is going to be in the best interest of Georgian people and, in a bigger sense, the nation.” For Cox, who was born and raised in Atlanta, that choice was easy. “I know Herschel Walker votes more conservative. And that’s the main thing I’m looking at.”
Some Black supporters say their allegiance to Walker is based on his position on key Republican issues, especially the hot-button topic of abortion. Even with the recent allegations, these voters point out that between Warnock and Walker’s policies, they prefer Walker’s because he is anti-abortion.
“I don’t understand a pro-choice pastor,” Amanda McGee, an Atlanta realtor and a former Republican National Committee worker, said of Warnock. “What a weird dichotomy for a pastor.”
She said Warnock should be focused on “encouraging Black young men and women to get married before having children they can’t afford.”
Atlanta resident Arlene Charles, a 75-year-old Walker supporter who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said she’s been voting Republican since 2008. She said her born-again values would not allow her to vote for Barack Obama.
“I’m a Christian and I didn’t vote for Obama because of Christian values,” she said. “There are a lot of Blacks that are Republicans because they’ve learned that every election cycle, the Democrats come out and they use that word ‘racism,’ which is not our problem in this country. We, Black people, have an opportunity to be whatever it is that we want to be. When I was growing up, most of the doctors and the lawyers were all white people. But that’s not the case now.”
Mykel Barthelemy, a commercial banker who ran for the U.S. House in 2020, said her support for Walker also hinges on her faith. She said she became a born-again Christian in 2000 and realized her values aligned more with those of Republicans.
“Anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality — anything that is immoral or goes against God,” she said. “We need people like Herschel to stand up and do something about a country that’s spiraling.”