ATLANTA — Former football star Herschel Walker has clinched Georgia’s Republican nomination for the Senate, NBC News projects, setting up a general election against Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, who also won his party’s primary Tuesday.
The race, which is projected to be one of the most competitive in the country, will be a rare case of two Black candidates competing in a critical Senate contest. With the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, both parties see Georgia as a must-win.
Deeply Republican red for years, the state favored Democrat Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a narrow margin in the 2020 presidential election before it sent two Democrats to the Senate — including Warnock in a special election — in 2021.
Warnock celebrated his victory Tuesday in a tweet, saying, “Thank you to everyone who voted for me today. It is the honor of my life to represent Georgians in the U.S. Senate.”
Now, with Warnock seeking a full term, the GOP has turned to Walker, an icon in the state who won the Heisman Trophy as a standout football player at the University of Georgia. Trump, seeking revenge and influence in a state that’s now a top-tier battleground, encouraged Walker to run. The two have a history: In the 1980s, Walker played for Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise in the now-defunct first iteration of the United States Football League before he moved on to the NFL.
But as a first-time candidate Walker has faced scrutiny over past accusations from an ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend that he threatened violence against them. He has also fielded questions about his mental health. Walker has said he has dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder. He has denied criminal wrongdoing while acknowledging his struggles and expressing an interest in setting an example for others with mental illnesses.
Walker’s top rival in the GOP primary, Gary Black, relentlessly cited such stories in an effort to defeat him, calling the old allegations “disqualifying.” Black also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he wouldn’t support Walker in the general election.
“He hasn’t earned my vote,” Black, the state’s agriculture commissioner, told the newspaper.
Warnock, meanwhile, has boasted of strong fundraising as he made it through an easy primary. He disclosed having about $23 million on hand in a pre-primary campaign finance report. Walker reported having about $7 million.
Supporters waited for Walker to speak at his election night party when a member of his campaign told the crowd he would hold off until Biden had delivered televised remarks about the Texas elementary school shooting that had occurred earlier Tuesday, overshadowing the political contests in that state and elsewhere. At least 19 children and two adults were killed when a gunman opened fire in a Texas elementary school, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The suspected shooter was also killed when confronted by law enforcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said.
The crowd mostly ignored the broadcast, but booed when Biden asked listeners, "When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?"
Once Biden's speech ended, the TVs, which were tuned to Fox News, returned to host Tucker Carlson. Carlson referred to Biden as "frail" and "confused," prompting cheers, laughter and applause. Walker was not in the room at the time of the boos or cheers.
Earlier Tuesday, Walker said in a statement: "Julie and I are heartbroken over the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. We are lifting up the victims and their families in prayer," referring to himself and his wife.
Later, when Walker addressed the crowd at his victory party, he asked that they close their eyes and pray for everyone in Texas.
Walker told his supporters he doesn't dress, look or talk like a politician.
"But I like not being a politician," he said. "Politicians are messing this country up."
He assured the crowd he was "here to help fix it" and to save the country from a group "who don't even like this country."