Herschel Walker faces big hurdles as he launches U.S. Senate campaign

Herschel Walker announced Tuesday that he is running as a Republican in Georgia's race next year for the U.S. Senate.

Combined ShapeCaption
Herschel Walker announced Tuesday that he is running as a Republican in Georgia's race next year for the U.S. Senate.

Herschel Walker is about to test the limits of his popularity in Georgia.

The former football star became the instant front-runner in the Republican race for the U.S. Senate after entering the contest this week, thanks to potent name recognition from his playing days and, perhaps more importantly, the blessing of former President Donald Trump.

But remaining at the top of the political pile will challenge him in ways even the best defensive lineman couldn’t. His top Republican rivals insist they’re staying in the race, and there’s already a narrative forming that he’s an erratic carpetbagger from Texas with a history of violent threats.

While Walker is comfortable with his celebrity, he’s never had to face what is coming: skeptical grassroots activists, prickly questions about policy, a wave of negative ads, and intense scrutiny of both his struggles with mental illness and accusations of menacing behavior.

And if he wins the GOP nomination next year, he must face a bigger challenge, taking on Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in a high-pressure race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. The balance of the chamber is now 50-50, and both parties are circling Georgia as a critical showdown.

ExploreWhat we know, and what we don’t know, about Herschel Walker’s Senate run

Plenty about his campaign remains a mystery, starting with how he’ll reckon with allegations of violent behavior in his past and whether Georgians will buy into the idea that a former athlete who has lived in Texas for decades should be the GOP nominee for the statewide post.

He’ll also face important questions about whether he can effectively raise cash and court grassroots supporters, many of whom have remained on the sidelines as the race develops.

Nor is it clear what role Trump will play in his campaign. While the former president’s endorsement could help Walker cement his party’s nomination, Trump could be a drawback in the general election, much like he complicated the case for the Republican Senate incumbents in 2020.

Walker did little to answer those questions Wednesday when he issued his first statement since entering the race. He made no reference to Trump or any specific political policies, instead promising to fight “to protect the American dream for everybody” and advance conservative values.

“Our country is at a crossroads,” he said, “and I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore.”

‘There’s no telling’

Walker joined three other Republicans in the contest, though only Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has elected experience. Black, who has won three terms to statewide office, has been an outspoken critic of Walker’s candidacy, reminding audiences that the political newcomer has lived afar for decades.

“I suppose I’ve always wanted an autograph,” Black said in a video he posted this week on social media, clutching a worn football. “But there are some things that are far more important now: the future of our country, the future of our families.”

Most of Georgia’s Republican establishment has avoided picking sides, though former Gov. Nathan Deal and nearly half of the state’s county sheriffs earlier endorsed Black. With Walker’s announcement, though, there were signs of a political shift underway.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who considered running for the Senate, quickly offered Walker his endorsement. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called Walker a “great American.” And several influential grassroots organizers promptly signaled their support for the athlete.

“He has proven himself in every area of his life,” said Kay Godwin, a longtime conservative activist from Pierce County. “We’ve followed him for years, and I know he will win.”

ExploreBehind Herschel Walker's campaign for U.S. Senate

But Walker’s sudden rise has mystified other Republicans who worry that his personal history will shadow his campaign.

Court records show a judge granted a protective order to his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, who has said Walker pointed a gun to her head and, in another instance, threatened to kill her and her boyfriend. And Walker’s candid revelations about his infidelity and suicidal thoughts, detailed in a 2008 book called “Breaking Free,” could come back to haunt him.

It’s common to hear influential Republicans express concern that Trump’s zeal to support a longtime friend — his ties to Walker span decades — has saddled the state GOP with an untested candidate who could fizzle against Warnock.

ExploreTrump sees Walker as ‘unstoppable’ candidate, but many in GOP are wary

“I don’t know a single significant GOP operative who thinks Walker will lose the primary. I don’t know a single significant GOP operative who thinks Walker will win the general,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator. “There’s a lot of frustration out there.”

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will aim to solidify the diverse coalition that backed his successful run in the January runoff. Herschel Walker's candidacy could pose a threat to the Democratic Party's hold on some groups that have favored it in recent elections, such as younger voters. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will aim to solidify the diverse coalition that backed his successful run in the January runoff. Herschel Walker's candidacy could pose a threat to the Democratic Party's hold on some groups that have favored it in recent elections, such as younger voters. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will aim to solidify the diverse coalition that backed his successful run in the January runoff. Herschel Walker's candidacy could pose a threat to the Democratic Party's hold on some groups that have favored it in recent elections, such as younger voters. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Republican’s supporters say he could also prove a savvy campaigner who can connect with voters, particularly sports fans, over his celebrity. They hope he can peel off support from Black men and moderates who helped Democrats flip both Senate seats in January’s runoffs.

Nathan Price, a University of North Georgia political scientist, said a head-to-head matchup would raise the question of whether Warnock can “keep the diverse coalition that propelled him to victory early in 2021 intact or if Walker can make inroads” with groups, such as younger voters, that have tilted Democratic.

Still, analysts stressed how unpredictable the campaign will be, especially given Georgia’s new reality as a swing state where just a small fraction of voters could decide elections. Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler could yet enter the race, particularly if Walker flails, and other developments could reshape the playing field.

“Republican races in Georgia tend to be decided in the last minute — the last-minute rally, the last-minute development. He’s got to be able to survive that last moment,” said Fred Smith, an Emory University constitutional law scholar. “There’s no telling what will happen.”