‘High road?’ Why Herschel Walker is trying a different GOP approach in Georgia

Herschel Walker at a campaign rally in September in Perry, Ga.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Herschel Walker at a campaign rally in September in Perry, Ga.

One after another, the slate of Georgia candidates endorsed by Donald Trump took turns embracing his hard-line policies. But when it came time for Herschel Walker to speak at his first campaign rally as a U.S. Senate candidate, he took a surprising turn.

The former football star steered clear of contentious issues over his nine-minute speech and offered platitudes about law and order and border control. To the thousands of Trump supporters hungry for red meat, he spoke instead of how “you can’t do anything unless you bring people together.”

As it turned out, that speech was no outlier. Walker has given only a handful of local interviews outside the friendly confines of Fox News and other conservative outlets. Even to GOP audiences, he’s more likely to skirt issues that typically motivate the base.

He’s avoided telling Georgians his stances on many of the divides that could shape the race against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock next year — or that could distinguish himself from his Republican rivals in the contest.

He hasn’t given specifics on his views on issues such as gun rights, tax policy or military aid. His campaign website is devoid of even trite commentary on key issues. And the few policy statements he’s issued seem aimed at avoiding stoking partisan divides.

“I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, I’m here to represent you. Because everything that the Democrats want, I guarantee it is what I want,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We want law and order. We want border control. We want the prices to go down.”

Since entering Georgia's U.S. Senate race, Republican Herschel Walker has mostly limited his appearances in the media to the friendly confines of Fox News and other conservative outlets. A screen shot of a Herschel Walker appearance on Fox News.

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Indeed, in the opening weeks of the campaign, Walker is placing a bet that his celebrity appeal, campaign bank account and tight relationship with Trump have given him the flexibility to avoid the base-pleasing issues that typically dominate a Republican primary.

The sharpest example of this campaign approach might be Walker’s position on illegal immigration, an issue that has long been uniquely energizing to state Republicans.

While other Republican Senate candidates back new crackdowns on unauthorized immigrants, Walker has stood by past statements in support of a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people in the U.S. illegally.

“He’s trying to take the high road,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and former congressional candidate. “It’s the right tact because he needs to separate himself from the negativity.”

Democrats say Walker’s strategy is just a smokescreen. Minutes after he gave his speech at Trump’s rally, for instance, he posed for a picture with Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in front of an “Impeach Biden” sign.

And they point to a long pattern of divisive statements from Walker, including a history of promoting false conspiracies about the 2020 election and a tweet that called for Trump and his allies to conduct a “total cleansing” two days before the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Still, Walker’s more recent statements are surprising in an era of polarized politics, not the least to supporters who expect a version of Trump’s fire-and-brimstone fury and instead get more tepid talk of broadening the party’s appeal.

“Herschel needs to do what he does, which is take the ball and run — run over everyone who gets in his way,” said David Davidson, a Macon Republican who attended an early Walker event.

‘He can get away with it’

It’s an approach Walker’s allies hope will pay off in a November 2022 contest against Warnock.

Trump lost last year’s election in part because he alienated moderate voters who once aligned with the GOP. And Republicans were swept in the Senate runoffs despite relentless attempts by both incumbents to placate the former president by endorsing his lies about widespread election fraud.

Walker, too, has echoed Trump’s false claims about his defeat. But he also has been unafraid to critique the former president. Asked on Fox News Radio about Trump’s prediction that Republicans would boycott the next two elections, Walker said it’s “not the right message.”

“President Trump, I’m very honored that he endorsed me because he knows I’m the right man for the job. But he also knows Herschel Walker is going to do it Herschel Walker’s way,” the candidate said, adding: “This is not Donald Trump running for it, it’s Herschel Walker running for it.”

Former President Donald Trump, left, and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker have a close relationship that dates to the 1980s. Walker is more willing to disagree with Trump than most candidates who have the former president's support. “President Trump, I’m very honored that he endorsed me because he knows I’m the right man for the job. But he also knows Herschel Walker is going to do it Herschel Walker’s way,” the candidate told Fox News Radio. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Multiple people close to both Republicans say the two men talk regularly and that Walker routinely delivers a similar message directly to the former president. He might have more leverage to take that tack because, unlike many other GOP politicians with Trump’s blessing, the two have a close relationship that dates to the 1980s.

“He’s in the enviable position where he doesn’t have to worry about winning the base,” said Leo Smith, the state GOP’s former minority engagement director. “He’s been willing to go against the tide of the Trump-lican rhetoric. And he might be one of the only candidates who has a strong enough bond with Trump that he can get away with it.”

When Walker does invoke Trump, it’s generally in glowing terms. He talks of the former president as a “fighter” and blasts Democrats for seeking to “erase” his achievements.

Walker told one interviewer that when the situation is dire, “I guarantee you (Trump’s) the one you want to be at the handle — he’s the one you want to be in control.”

But he doesn’t feel the need to remind audiences of his ties to Trump. His most recent ad, released earlier this week, features footage of Walker at Trump’s September rally in Perry — but not a single image of the former president or mention of the word “Republican.”

‘A boiled peanut’

Walker’s attempt to look past the primary and toward the general election is not lost on his opponents.

The campaign of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, his best-known GOP rival, often asserts that Walker is running the “Biden in the basement strategy” to avoid probing questions on his policy stances, his past abstention from GOP politics or his history of violent behavior toward women.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, left, is Herschel Walker's best-known rival in GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Black has accused Walker of running a "Biden in the basement" campaign to avoid tough questions about policy, his abstention from GOP politics in the past and his history of violent behavior toward women.

Credit: File photo

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Credit: File photo

“I don’t think Georgia Republicans are going to nominate a pro-amnesty candidate who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and never voted in a Republican primary until last year and, by the way, has a history of stalking and threatening women,” said Dan McLagan, Black’s spokesman.

He added: “If Herschel did somehow get the nomination, the press and the left would open him up like a boiled peanut.”

Democrats highlighted a controversy that embarrassed Walker’s campaign earlier this month to show he was no warm-and-fuzzy moderate.

The Walker campaign canceled a fundraiser in Texas that was to be hosted by a supporter who sported a swastika on her social media page after immense pressure from Jewish groups and other critics.

“Herschel might be able to run to the middle in a highlight reel, but not in Georgia in 2022,” said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat who flipped a Republican-controlled seat in the suburbs. “He won’t have the same blocking, at the very least.”

Some Republicans see an upside. Eric Tanenblatt has long been a voice for the establishment wing of the state Republican Party. So far, at least, he’s hopeful that Walker’s approach could open doors with some voters who have fled the GOP.

“If Herschel is looking at the long game, he’s not going to want to be branded the Trump candidate in a general election,” Tanenblatt said. “It’s interesting and encouraging to see a candidate who is not toeing the party line.”