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In Georgia, 2 black candidates are vying for a seat in the Senate


COLUMBUS, Georgia — Wayne Black was one of the few African Americans in the crowd as around 100 people recently gathered at Republican Party headquarters near Columbus, Georgia to hear from US Senate candidate and football legend Herschel Walker .

A member of Muscogee County’s Republican executive committee, Black said he found some promise in Walker’s candidacy, a GOP voice that could appeal to African Americans and others in Georgia who have traditionally voted Democratic. .

“They identify with him from an American dream perspective,” Black said. “You can start from scratch and if you work hard you can achieve the American dream.”

But that optimism ran into headwinds about 100 miles to the north. As she left an Atlanta polling station, Wyvonia Carter said her choice in what could be the most competitive Senate race this year was not particularly complicated.

“You know I’m black, don’t you?” said the 84-year-old. “I am a Democrat. That’s it.”

In this Deep South state where the painful history of slavery, segregation and racial injustice is pervasive, voters have for the first time selected two black candidates to represent major parties in a race for the Senate. After handily winning their respective primaries on Tuesday, Walker will face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in an all-party campaign that could help decide Senate control.

The race will test whether Democratic gains in 2020 were a blow or the start of a political realignment in a rapidly changing state. In November 2020, Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in 28 years, and just two months later, Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff flipped two longstanding Republican Senate seats, giving their party a slim majority in the Senate.

Black voters played a crucial role in helping Democrats win those victories and will likely be decisive again this year.

The question is less whether Walker will sever the bond black voters have had with Democratic candidates. Rather, it’s about whether black voters, frustrated by the lack of progress in Washington on issues ranging from overhauling policing to voting rights, simply sit down in this election. In a tight election, even a small change in voting patterns could be decisive.

Republicans hope Walker’s candidacy can at least neutralize the issue of race in the campaign.

“In this race, black Georgians will not have to face the issue of race,” said Camilla Moore, president of the Georgia Black Republican Council. “And I really believe that by culture, we are socially conservative. I think Herschel just needs to be Herschel and say his conservative message.

But in interviews in recent weeks, many black voters said they wouldn’t give Walker a second look because of his race. They said they were politically motivated, and Walker, who was backed by former President Donald Trump and generally conforms to GOP orthodoxy, does not meet their needs.

Louis Harden, a 58-year-old black voter in Atlanta, said he supported Warnock because of the senator’s support for Medicaid expansion.

“It doesn’t matter what color,” he said. “It’s just the issues, who’s going to do the job.”

There are only a few modern cases in which two black people have emerged as candidates in a Senate race.

Democrat Barack Obama took on Republican radio host and former diplomat Alan Keyes during his 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois. More recently, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, was unsuccessfully challenged in 2016 by Thomas Dixon, a pastor from North Charleston.

But the Warnock-Walker game is unique because it takes place in a state far more competitive than Illinois, a Democratic stronghold, or South Carolina, where Republicans dominate. Moreover, the candidates in Georgia are already well known, representing two revered institutions in the South: the church and football.

Walker, among Georgia’s best-known sports personalities, won a championship and the Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia in the 1980s. Warnock is the senior pastor of the church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

“This is going to be a historic game,” said Georgia Historical Society researcher Stan Deaton.

But to chip away at Warnock’s support among black voters, Walker will have to do more to appeal to the black community, said Leah Wright Rigor, a political historian at Johns Hopkins University who has written about black Republican efforts. to broaden the party. White background.

Republican candidates who succeed among African-American voters have the ability to forge a political identity independent of party, something she said Walker has not done so far. Black voters also view how a candidate treats their community and may view African-American candidates who stick to Republican talking points harder than their white counterparts, Wright Rigor said.

“And the reason is that it’s considered a betrayal,” she said. “It’s considered a community betrayal.”

Walker largely followed Republican messaging on race. He defended Trump against criticism that Trump was racist, he accused Black Lives Matter of wanting to destroy the country, and he said “black-on-black crime” is far worse than police brutality. Walker has come under scrutiny following allegations he threatened the life of his ex-wife and significantly inflated his balance sheet as a businessman.

Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, embraced King’s legacy of racial justice and equal rights. After the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Warnock explained the country’s fight against a “virus” he called “COVID-1619” for the year some of the first slaves arrived in what is the United States today. On Capitol Hill, he attacked Republican push for tougher voting rules as “Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Warnock “has a history of fighting to improve the lives of all Georgians,” Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks said in a statement, citing Warnock’s efforts to write off student loan debt and address high rates of maternal mortality.

“The Georgian people, regardless of race, will decide who is a candidate and who is best suited to represent the Georgian people,” he said.

A spokesperson for Walker’s campaign, Mallory Blount, said all Georgians, regardless of race, face issues created by Democrats and that Walker is “fed up with politicians constantly dividing people into depending on the color of their skin.

Walker told a House subcommittee last year, while testifying against slavery reparations, that “black power” was being used to “create white guilt.”

In her memoir, “Breaking Free,” Walker said her mother taught her that “color is invisible” and that doing good or bad is what matters.

“I never really liked the idea that I had to represent my people,” he wrote. “My parents raised me to believe that I represented humanity – the people – and not black, white, yellow or any other color or type of person.”

Still, black Republicans in Georgia expect Walker to work to woo the African-American community in the general election. They also believe in his personal story of overcoming obstacles to reach the top ranks of college football and then the NFL will find an audience among black voters.

“Self-determination has always been a big thing in the black community since we came out of slavery,” said Leonard Massey, who is black and the Republican Party chairman for Chatham County in eastern Georgia. “He actually shows how to get to the next level.”

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Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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