This story originally ran in the Georgia Recorder, a publication of the States Newsroom, of which NC Policy Watch is also a part.
Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia football star-turned Donald Trump ally, has launched a campaign to be Georgia’s next Republican U.S. Senator, challenging Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Walker’s entry in the race ends months of speculation that the Trump friend would reshape the race, which is likely to be hard-fought and expensive for both sides as Republicans seek to shake off the pain caused by Warnock’s upset win in January and Democrats try to hang onto the gains made in the once reliably red state.
His newly formed campaign announced Wednesday morning that Walker will formally kick off his bid for the Senate with a video later in the day.
“Our country is at a crossroads, and I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Walker said in a statement released by his campaign. “America is the greatest country in the world, but too many politicians in Washington are afraid to say that.
“I have lived the American Dream, but I am concerned it is slipping away for many people,” he added. “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.”
Walker grew up in rural Wrightsville, Georgia, but has lived in Texas for years after scoring big dividends for the Dallas Cowboys.
Paperwork filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission establishing “Team Herschel, Inc.” includes the names of several players in right-wing politics, including an email address for Stefan Passantino, an attorney who served as former Deputy White House Counsel for ethics policy in the Trump administration. Alpharetta Republican operative Jason Boles is listed as the committee’s treasurer.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s office lists Boles as registered agent for Republican political organizations and PACs, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Save America Stop Socialism PAC and Greene for Congress.
Boles, who is listed as the Walker committee’s treasurer, works for RTA Strategy, a political management firm owned by Rick Thompson, a member of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. An RTA Strategy email address is listed as the primary contact for the new committee, and its physical address is located at the Buckhead home of Walker’s wife, who is under secretary of state investigation for allegedly voting in Georgia despite living in Texas.
As NC Policy Watch reported last year, Boles and Thompson were among those behind a sprawling scheme by conservative groups with ties to the Trump administration to entrap several North Carolina nonpartisan voter education nonprofits into violating election laws.
Tougher opponents than linebackers
That investigation is just the beginning of what could be a major headache for some mainstream Republicans who hoped Walker would stay on the sidelines.
CNN has reported that GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants former Sens. David Perdue or Kelly Loeffler to mount a comeback campaign in the belief that Walker could win the GOP primary but tank in the general election, and some Georgia Democrats appear giddy at the news.
“Walker’s entrance into Georgia’s chaotic GOP Senate primary is the nightmare scenario that Republicans have spent the entire cycle trying to avoid,” said Democratic Party of Georgia spokesman Dan Gottlieb in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
Walker has never run for elected office and has no record on the issues he will likely be expected to address as a candidate, while Warnock has won Georgia statewide, has cast party-line votes and boasts millions in campaign cash.
And while Walker has been open about his struggles with mental health, a July Associated Press report revealed new details about his personal and business history that could haunt him during what is certain to be a hard-fought Republican primary and general election.
“The documents detail accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior,” according to the AP report.
“One of the things he’ll discover is that everything in his past now will be investigated, will potentially become an issue, and he will be asked about these events from his past,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
“He’s also going to discover very quickly he’s going to be asked about where he stands on all kinds of policy issues, a number of which he probably has never given any thought to. And yet, he’s going to have to become educated about all these so he can then have a decent answer to what you would do about housing, education, what we’re doing in Afghanistan, how we should react to China, and it goes on and on and on.”
Both Democrats and Republicans will look to exploit any stumbles Walker might make in discussing major issues.
“Trying to deal with opposing candidates without any blockers in front of him could be a lot harder than running over defensive linemen was in the NFL and the SEC,” Bullock said.
The Trump bump
Still, Walker enters the race in a strong position with Trump’s personal backing.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia? He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL. He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!” Trump said in a March statement.
Trump’s ties to the once-bruising running back include the New York tycoon’s ownership of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals, a short-lived franchise that signed Walker as an underclassman.
Last year, Walker spoke at the Republican National Convention that handed Trump the nomination for a second term.
The launch of Walker’s campaign will likely mean more established GOP politicians who were considering running will no longer bother.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter has expressed interest in running for Senate, but he was clear that he would only hop in if it was not against Walker.
“I’m not interested in political suicide,” Carter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July. “I ain’t going to run against Herschel Walker in the state of Georgia. I was born at night. But it wasn’t last night.”
Walker was the strongest of the potential Republican candidates in a survey from Public Policy Polling released earlier this month.
The pollsters found Walker had higher favorability than Loeffler or Republican Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black, the heretofore frontrunner among Republican candidates. Black has already received several big endorsements, including from former Gov. Nathan Deal and 75 Georgia sheriffs.
But Walker also performed the best in a hypothetical matchup against Warnock, trailing him by just 2% with 6% of respondents undecided.
Other than Walker, Black is the Republican in the race with the most name recognition, but two other men have signed up to put their names on the ballot against Warnock, Kelvin King of Marietta and Atlanta’s Latham Sadler, both conservative veterans.
Black welcomed Herschel to the race in a campaign video in which he held a football and said he has been a big fan “since we were in college together, before you moved away,” a dig at Walker leaving UGA before his eligibility was up and then residing in Texas.
“I suppose I’ve always wanted an autograph, but there are some things that are far more important now, the future of our country and the future of our families,” Black said before challenging Walker to meet him this Saturday for a public discussion of the issues facing Georgians at the 8th District Republican Party Annual Fish Fry in Perry, Georgia.
Whichever Republican comes out victorious in next May’s primary will have to face Warnock the following November.
But speaking at an Atlanta Press Club event last week, Warnock, who was elected just seven months ago in a historic win, said he has been too focused on his new job to worry much about re-election, recalling advice his father gave him as a boy.
“He told me, ‘If someone hires you to do a job, do the job they hired you to do,’ and so right now, I’m focused on the job Georgians hired me to do,” Warnock said.