OPINION: Herschel Walker’s candidacy: The Mess Express

Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate, speaks at a campaign rally in Hiram, Ga., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022.  Republicans turned out in force, but Walker still lost in Georgia. (Nicole Buchanan/The New York Times)

Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate, speaks at a campaign rally in Hiram, Ga., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Republicans turned out in force, but Walker still lost in Georgia. (Nicole Buchanan/The New York Times)

It’s fitting that old #34 lost roughly by a Sanford Stadium worth of voters.

Out of 3.5 million-plus votes cast, Herschel Walker, UGA’s legendary running back and beloved icon, lost by about 96,000 votes, or 2.7%, to Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. In the scheme of things, this was a blowout. A month ago, in all of Georgia’s statewide races, the best a Democrat could do was lose by 5%.

We can thank Georgia voters, who are still largely a conservative lot, for turning back what would have been a national embarrassment for the state.

Herschel, an intensely competitive person but a disaster of a candidate, was perhaps the only Republican who could have lost in Georgia this time around. (And that’s including Kelly Loeffler.)

Dan McLagan, a GOP hired-gun and campaign staffer for Gary Black, one of Walker’s defeated primary opponents, summed up Walker’s candidacy perfectly to my colleague Greg Bluestein: “Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire. And an orphanage. Then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers.”

Bluestein trotted out a lengthy political obituary just hours after Walker’s loss, meaning he’d been working on it advance, with Republican operatives knowing their candidate was toast.

Republicans, as in Donald Trump, tried to employ the Our Beloved Black Guy approach.

Walker’s son, Christian, who has flamed his father in the past as a violent hypocrite, said in a Tweet that tokenism was a losing strategy: “Republicans, we say we don’t play ‘identity politics,’ and then you ran this man mainly because he was the same skin color as his opponent with no background other than football.”

Herschel Walker


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He added, “A boring old Republican could have won.”

I don’t know if he was referring to 64-year-old Black, who lost to Walker in the GOP primary 68% to 13%. But the outgoing agriculture commissioner, a steady Eddie, sure fits that description.

Black made an I-told-you-so about Walker’s unelectability to Republicans well in advance of his primary.

A year ago, Black’s staff went to Washington to convince GOP leaders Walker was a hot mess. They compiled a model advertisement of what Warnock’s campaign would use against Walker. It included accusations of spousal abuse and Walker threatening a shootout with police in Texas after a domestic disturbance.

“At the time, we didn’t know about the abortions or his extra kids,” one of Black’s staffers told me, referring to stories that he paid for an abortion. “But they made us turn it off.”

The higher-ups knew there was no stopping Walker. Soon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Walker and the future GOP catastrophe was baked in.

McConnell “wanted to ride the steamroller rather than get run over by it,” GOP strategist Brian Robinson said. “No one wanted to get run over.”

Robinson said stories about Walker’s mental illness did not do him in, nor did the accusations of domestic abuse.

Republicans can vote with a clothespin cinched across their nostrils.

“Voters were looking for Herschel to give them some substance,” Robinson told me. “They didn’t feel he had it.”

Republican candidate Herschel Walker speaks at his Senate runoff election night party at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. Walker lost against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Walker’s campaign was left with the trying chore of forging a path that kept their candidate on task and giving him a shot at reaching independent voters. After the loss, Marjorie Taylor Greene criticized Walker’s campaign managers for not including her in more events. But I’m sure Walker’s team didn’t want to combine crazy with clueless.

Ben Burnett, a GOP podcaster and former Alpharetta city councilman, worried about Walker’s chances soon after the primary. Still, he raised a half-million dollars for the candidate through a political nonprofit. But potential donors stopped answering his calls perhaps a week before the runoff.

Those ducking Burnett’s calls did not want to cut checks for a losing cause. He noted Walker lost four Alpharetta precincts that Gov. Brian Kemp won. That turned out to be Warnock’s secret sauce for victory.

“It’s not Herschel’s fault for being who he was,” Burnett told me. “It was the Georgia primary voters’ fault for not being able to ask themselves if their nominee can withstand a guy who was speaking all his life.”

Or who could outrun his sordid past.

On the eve of the runoff, Burnett told an interviewer, “Herschel Walker can’t find a closing message because he doesn’t have the capacity.”

Seth Weathers, a bombastic political operative who now peddles political merchandise, was more to the point about Walker’s character and thought processes.

“We need candidates who are smart enough not to pay for their abortions by check,” he tweeted.

Weathers told me the GOP should have won the seat. However, he added, the party “put up a candidate who couldn’t stop lying and couldn’t put two cogent thoughts together.”

His selling point was he once won a national championship for UGA and “and nostalgia is a very powerful thing.”

“But he just couldn’t delve into issues; instead he was talking about bulls inseminating cows,” Weathers said. “You know me, I don’t mind my candidates being a bit crazy. I just want to know what they believe.”