Former football star Herschel Walker’s entrance into the nascent Senate contest in Georgia is injecting a new air of uncertainty into one of the closest-watched races of the 2022 midterm cycle.
At the outset of his campaign, Walker has some key advantages in the race to unseat Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockOn The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms Warnock pushes Medicaid expansion as equity issue amid Democrats' health care battle GOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill MORE (D-Ga.). He boasts celebrity status from his time as a football star at the University of Georgia and his long career in the NFL, and he already has the support of former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE, who has goaded Walker to run for months.
But even some Republicans are unsure about Walker’s candidacy. He has never before run for public office, making him a relatively unknown quantity in the political world. And he’s also likely to face questions about his past struggles with mental illness and allegations of violent behavior.
“He’s been upfront about some of his problems,” Chuck Clay, a former Georgia state senator and GOP chairman, said. “I certainly don’t think it’s a disqualifier for him, but there are some legitimate questions. It’s also campaign fodder — in the primary, in the general.”
“Yeah, he can take a hit on the football field,” Clay added. “But can he continue to take a hit in the day-to-day grind when he’s out campaigning?”
Republicans see unseating Warnock as paramount in their effort to recapture control of the Senate next year, and they believe the political tides have turned in their favor since President BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE won the state last November and Warnock and Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffGOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill Poll: Half of voters say American democracy under 'major threat' GOP's embrace of Trump's false claims creates new perils MORE (D-Ga.) flipped its two Senate seats in January.
The GOP needs to pick up only one Senate seat next year to win the majority in the upper chamber.
Walker isn’t the only Republican in the race. So far, three other GOP candidates are also vying to take on Warnock next year, including Georgia state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, former banking executive Latham Saddler and businessman Kelvin King.
Former Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerDraft Georgia congressional lines target McBath, shore up Bourdeaux Warnock picks up major abortion rights group's endorsement in reelection bid Trump endorses Hershel Walker for Georgia Senate seat MORE (R-Ga.), who lost to Warnock in a January runoff election, has also floated a bid for her old job, while Rep. Buddy CarterEarl (Buddy) Leroy CarterTrump endorses Hershel Walker for Georgia Senate seat Herschel Walker's entrance shakes up Georgia Senate race Herschel Walker files paperwork to run for Senate in Georgia MORE (R-Ga.) previously said that he would run for the Senate seat if Walker ruled out a campaign of his own.
But in addition to his high name recognition, Walker has another indispensable asset behind his campaign: the support of Trump, who remains deeply influential among Georgia conservatives.
“The Georgia Republican Party is still dominated at the grassroots level by Trump supporters,” Clay said. “The endorsement certainly is the single largest force in a Republican primary right now, so with the hardest-core voters, I’d say Walker has the edge.”
Trump has publicly encouraged Walker to jump into the Senate contest since March, and Walker has entertained the idea for months. In recent weeks, he sent signals that a campaign announcement was close at hand. Last week, he registered to vote in Georgia after living for decades in Texas.
On Tuesday, he filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission declaring his intent to run for Warnock’s seat.
“Our country is at a crossroads and I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Walker said in a statement on Wednesday. “In the United States Senate, I will stand up for conservative values and get our country moving in the right direction. It is time to have leaders in Washington who will fight to protect the American Dream for everybody.”
Even with his celebrity status and Trump’s support, however, Walker has some political liabilities. Shortly after he filed his candidacy on Tuesday, Black released a video welcoming him into the race and “back to Georgia,” an apparent swipe at the fact that Walker had been living in Texas.
“You know, I’ve been a big fan of yours since we were in college together. Before you moved away, I suppose I always wanted an autograph,” Black said. “But there are some things that are far more important now: the future of our country, the future of our families.”
Walker is also likely to face questions about his at-times tumultuous personal and professional life. An article published last month by The Associated Press detailed a series of concerns about Walker’s business practices, as well as violent threats he made against his ex-wife Cindy Grossman that led to a judge granting her a protective order.
Walker has also been open about his diagnosis with dissociative identity disorder — once known as multiple personality disorder — addressing the topic in his 2008 book “Breaking Free.”
Democrats pounced on Walker’s entrance into the Senate race on Tuesday, with the Georgia Democratic Party calling his candidacy “a nightmare scenario” for Republicans.
“By the end of this long, divisive, and expensive intra-party fight, it’ll be clear that none of these candidates are focused on the issues that matter most to Georgians,” Dan Gottlieb, a spokesperson for the party, said in a statement.
Even some Republicans have expressed concerns about Walker as a candidate. Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Arbery murder trial set to begin this week Stacey Abrams to campaign for McAuliffe in Virginia MORE told the AP that the former football star would “certainly bring a lot of things to the table” in the Senate race.
“But as others have mentioned, there’s also a lot of questions out there,” he said.
Still, what little public polling has come out of the Georgia Senate race shows Walker as a competitive candidate. A survey conducted earlier this month by the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found Walker trailing Warnock by only 2 points in a head-to-head match-up, within the poll’s 3.9-point margin of error. By comparison, Black ran 8 points behind the Democratic incumbent.
Jay Williams, a Georgia-based Republican strategist, said that Walker’s prospects in the Senate race will be decided in the coming months and that it is up to him to dispel concerns about his candidacy.
“People are going to judge for themselves whether he’s still struggling with these issues or if he’s overcome them,” Williams said. “I think the good news is he’s got a preseason in this primary. If he does really well there, the general is going to be a lot easier than expected. If it’s a difficult primary, he might have some trouble at the end.”
Williams also brushed off concerns about Walker’s status as a political newcomer.
“He’s going to make mistakes. He’s going to do things that all new candidates do,” Williams said. “The question is, how does he recover from those mistakes? How does he handle the primary campaign?
“As long as he shows he’s competent, he’s going to be the person to beat over Warnock.”