Cruise control? Walker ignores rivals, aims for Warnock ahead of May primary

DAHLONEGA — Taking the stage of a packed gym in the foothills of North Georgia, Herschel Walker gave the audience exactly what it wanted: a raft of conservative campaign promises, including a pledge to rid the state of Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“If I don’t stand up, who is going to stand up for us? I can promise you Herschel Walker is going to be in this race,” the former football star said. “And it’s time my opponent knows that. I didn’t get in this race to play games. It’s time for (Warnock) to know he’s in for a fight.”

Walker’s recent visit to the Lumpkin County GOP might have seemed like standard campaign fare. But for the Republican Senate front-runner, who has headlined only a handful of large-scale public events, it encapsulates his strategy ahead of the May 24 primary.

Any other statewide candidate might feel pressure from stinging attacks by opponents, damaging revelations about his past and a string of blunders that have made national headlines.

But Walker is running his campaign as if he’s in cruise control ahead of the May showdown against several lesser-known rivals.

With near-universal name recognition in football-mad Georgia and sizable leads in the polls, he’s ignored his Republican opponents, avoided many media interviews and stuck to a regimen of mostly closed-door fundraisers, private gatherings and other tightly controlled appearances.

Along the way, he’s received endorsements from both former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, plus a cast of other state and national figures, that has his campaign so confident he’s skipping debates against GOP rivals.

“He’s not doing anything that will tear down any Republicans. He’s threading the needle between playing golf with Trump and urging people to vote,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and former GOP congressional candidate.

“I don’t know if he’s invincible. But why would he try to do more in this primary?” Zoller said. “He’s got nowhere to go but down.”

‘Autograph tour’?

Despite his campaign’s efforts to closely guard his image, a series of stumbles and fresh stories about past episodes of violence and erratic behavior have drawn heaps of attention that seem certain to follow him through a likely November matchup against Warnock.

He has falsely claimed he graduated from the University of Georgia and bungled the concept of evolution, drawing widespread criticism. He has issued confounding answers to questions about voting rights and infrastructure policy. A few days ago, he wrongly asserted that NATO wasn’t supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

New reports have also shone a spotlight on a history of allegations of domestic violence. That includes his ex-wife telling authorities that Walker pointed a gun at her and choked her, which persuaded a judge to grant her a restraining order.

A separate analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed a pattern of exaggerated claims about his business background.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Herschel Walker’s best-known rival in the GOP's U.S. Senate primary, released a video of possible November attacks Democrats could launch against the Republican front-runner that sent a stir through the Georgia GOP.

Credit: Associated Press

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Credit: Associated Press

His Republican rivals, however, have struggled to bring him under the majority-vote threshold he needs to win the GOP nomination in May and avoid a June runoff. An Emerson College poll released Tuesday pegged Walker at 57%; others have put him even higher.

His GOP opponents are running out of time. Early voting starts in less than a month, lending new urgency to Walker’s rivals who say the primary shouldn’t be a coronation — and that Walker’s “baggage” will render him unelectable in November.

Walker’s best-known Republican rival, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, released a video of possible November attacks from Democrats that sent a stir through the Georgia GOP. Another, military veteran Kelvin King, said Walker is trying to turn the race into an “autograph tour.”

Kelvin King, who is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, has said that Herschel Walker has avoided debates and interviews with most media in an attempt to turn his campaign into an "autograph tour." STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

And former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler, in third place in some GOP primary polls, aired an ad on Fox News this week framing the race as a choice “between a war fighter and a celebrity.”

“He abandoned Georgia, came back just to run for the United States Senate. And he’s doing the (Joe) Biden basement strategy, expecting to be handed this thing,” Saddler said in an interview. “In a great state like ours, a U.S. Senate race should be difficult.”

The attacks could ramp up significantly. Two outside groups aligned with Black and Saddler have pledged to work together to weaken Walker’s campaign, though some political experts are skeptical they’ll have the time or resources to influence the race.

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Latham Saddler has criticized Herschel Walker for avoiding debates and other events that test candidates' mettle. “He abandoned Georgia, came back just to run for the United States Senate. And he’s doing the Biden basement strategy, expecting to be handed this thing,” Saddler said in an interview. “In a great state like ours, a U.S. Senate race should be difficult.”

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

There are also signs of grassroots pushback. The Rabun County GOP became perhaps the first county organization in the state to pass a no-confidence resolution after Walker refused to engage in debates or take questions from voters at town halls.

“No coach would send an untested football player into the state championship who refused to practice, has no record of performance in debates,” the resolution states without calling out Walker by name.

‘True enemy’

Walker has shown little interest in changing his strategy. Some polls give him more than 70% of the vote, and he has yet to mention his Republican rivals by name — a sure sign that, so far, he’s not worried about threats.

(His leading critics see it differently. Dan McLagan, a veteran GOP strategist who is advising Black’s campaign, summed up Walker’s challenge this way: “Attacking his opponents won’t help him. Herschel’s true enemy is Herschel.”)

Instead, Walker continues to position himself for a general election matchup. He made waves when he distanced himself slightly from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene by pulling out of her pro-gun rally following her appearance at a white nationalist event.

And unlike other Trump-backed candidates at the former president’s March rally in northeast Georgia, he didn’t bring up lies about 2020 election fraud or center his speech on his allegiance to the former president. Instead, he opened with a pledge to restrict transgender athletes.

In public messaging, mostly in the form of statements or social media posts, Walker brushes aside the criticism leveled against him as media-made distractions. In a recent note to campaign donors, he accused journalists of ignoring soaring inflation and illegal immigration.

“Instead,” Walker said, “they want to talk about my high school report card, how bad of a candidate I am and why I shouldn’t be a senator because I’m not a career politician.”

Behind the scenes, Walker’s campaign has tested each of the attacks against him in extensive polls, with one adviser saying none proved to be “fatal.” Democrats, not surprisingly, have a different view.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, shown talking to pharmacist Ira Katz at the Little Five Points Pharmacy, has campaigned lately by talking more about fighting inflation and lowering the cost of fuel and insulin.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Warnock has set a string of U.S. Senate fundraising records and reported roughly $23 million in his campaign account in his latest disclosure, money he’ll use to promote his reelection and unspool attacks on his opponents. Lately, he’s talked more about fighting inflation and lowering the cost of fuel and insulin.

And the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC has reserved more than $24.4 million worth of airtime in Georgia through the final stretch of the November election, according to media buyers.

“Once you get out of the primary, other voters start to pay attention. And that’s when they will compare Warnock to Walker side by side,” said Jason Carter, a former state senator who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. “That will be very bad for Herschel Walker.”

Herschel Walker's near-universal name recognition as a former star in football-mad Georgia has helped give him a substantial lead in polls ahead of the Republican primary, and it will make a difficult candidate for Democrats to deal with in November. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘He’s for us’

But Walker’s soaring celebrity brings a level of unpredictability that has senior Democrats worried, too. The power of Walker’s brand was on vivid display at several of his recent public appearances.

Clint Dark of Nicholson tripped over himself at Trump’s March rally in Commerce to try to get a selfie with the candidate.

“I’m a longtime Herschel Walker fan, Republican and conservative. He represents everything I stand for,” Dark said, after composing himself. “Our freedoms, our constitutional rights, the Second Amendment. I don’t worry about his past at all. He’s an upstanding man.”

Near the end of his speech in Dahlonega, Walker broke into a melancholy melody that, he related to the crowd, he sang as a child while battling depression. Some in the audience said it made them uncomfortable. Others found it endearing.

Kim Pyron, the owner of a local tea shop, said Walker’s remarks came “from the heart.” More broadly, she added, his struggles with mental illness, including dissociative identity disorder, made him a more compelling candidate.

“There are a whole lot of other people who have a lot more problems,” Pyron said. “He’s open and transparent about it. He’s not hiding from it, and that makes him more honest and believable.”

Among those who packed the gym that day was Franz Mendez of Fayetteville, who confided that he didn’t vote in the January 2021 Senate runoffs because he was so disgusted with politics. He said he views Walker as a rare candidate who can motivate disenchanted Georgians like him.

“Warnock wants to just fight for Democrats,” he said. “Herschel wants to fight for both sides. He’s not against us. He’s for us.”

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