Amid campaign turmoil, Walker just kept running

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

The Republican pushed past scandals to mount a comeback

As he took the debate stage at the J.W. Marriott in Savannah, U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker knew he had to deliver.

Just 10 days earlier, an ex-girlfriend accused Walker — falsely, he claimed — of paying her to have an abortion. On the campaign trail, his gaffes and rambling statements had even some fellow Republicans fretting he might not be up to the job. And his opponent, Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, was a seasoned orator with three elections under his belt.

But amid the turmoil, Walker stayed focused, aides said.

“He looked at the debate like training,” said Walker campaign strategist Gail Gitcho, who led his debate preparation.

ExploreHow Warnock became the last Democrat standing in Georgia’s top 2022 races

Walker watched other debates — Warnock’s 2021 faceoff with opponent Kelly Loeffler and Republican J.D. Vance’s showdown with Democrat Tim Ryan in Ohio’s Senate race — consuming them like game-day film. He squeezed in practice sessions between campaign stops and fundraising calls, scribbling down notes and phoning his team from the road to try out new lines. The weekend before, he hunkered down in the conference room of an Atlanta hotel for three-hour mock debate sessions.

After the political rite of passage was over, the former football star had not only landed some solid punches, he avoided major missteps.

If there was a moment in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race when momentum began to shift for Walker — helping him land in a runoff that might decide control of the chamber — it was that Oct. 14 debate. His performance was not without flaws. He said, for instance, that everyone who worked had access to health insurance. But for some Republicans, wary about whether Walker was ready for prime time, it was the reassurance they needed.

Still standing

On the stump, Walker was visibly energized and stepped up his attacks on Warnock, labeling him “a Marxist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He plunged deeper into culture war issues, railing against things such as trans athletes and gender pronouns. His speeches were steeped in religious language.

“I’m not a politician,” he liked to say. “I’m a warrior for God.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In the closing weeks of the race, Walker focused his time on rural parts of the state. Far from expanding the Republican electorate, as Gov. Brian Kemp was trying to do in his reelection bid, Walker traveled to places such as Dillard, Ringgold, Baxley and St. Marys — GOP strongholds he needed to turn out.

Walker’s comeback earned him a runoff berth. But critics say a less flawed candidate would have made it even further.

He was the only Republican running statewide in Georgia who didn’t win outright; Kemp cruised to victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams and had coattails for the rest of the down-ballot GOP candidates. But they weren’t big enough for Walker, who trailed the governor by roughly 200,000 votes, showing that some Georgians disliked Walker enough to split their ticket.

“Herschel Walker has so many allegations and baggage that come along with him,” said Avery Chappell, who split the ticket between Kemp and Warnock. “Just because he is hand-picked by (Donald) Trump and played football does not give him a rubber stamp for my vote.”

The Warnock campaign noted Wednesday that Walker fared worse than Trump across Georgia, in rural, urban and suburban areas. Walker “significantly underperformed in an environment that set him up for success,” the Democrat’s campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said in a tweet.

But Walker is still standing after an onslaught of highly personal attack ads from a better-funded opponent. Warnock raised $115 million to Walker’s $37 million, according to the most recent campaign disclosures.

Walker will still have the same heavy baggage in a runoff race — his ex-wife’s allegations of violence, claims that he pressured two women to get abortions, falsehoods he told about his businesses, charitable work and law enforcement ties.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

But his campaign has managed to transform scandals that some thought might doom the first-time candidate into stories of religious redemption and grit that have resonated with some voters.

“He’s a good person who has been put through the wringer and had everything in the kitchen sink thrown at him, and he’s still fighting for you,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Sunday while campaigning with Walker in Paulding County.

At events, his celebrity is on full display. Many show up in University of Georgia gear with No. 34 — his jersey number from football days when he earned the Heisman Trophy. Walker stands patiently after these speeches —sometimes for as long as an hour — to take pictures with long lines of star-struck fans.

But not everyone who voted for Herschel is a fan. Some don’t give a whit about his football career or his celebrity, as long as he helps the GOP win control of the Senate.

“It could be Daffy Duck for all I care,” Ronald Thrush said in Baxley. “Just get the Democrats out of Washington.”