OPINION: Herschel Walker’s Velvet Rope Campaign

An image of Herschel Walker’s empty podium at the 9th District GOP debate in Gainesville.

An image of Herschel Walker’s empty podium at the 9th District GOP debate in Gainesville.

With less than a month until early voting begins in the Georgia primaries, the increasingly frustrated Republicans running against Herschel Walker are accusing the famous former footballer of conducting what they call the “basement strategy,” of President Joe Biden, who kept a restricted schedule during the pandemic campaign of 2020.

The latest insult for Walker’s rivals came last weekend when every other Republican running for U.S. Senate dutifully showed up for a debate and Walker’s only presence was an empty podium with his name on it. He has said he has no plans to debate at all before his May 24th GOP primary.

Walker’s strategy so far has actually been less dark basement and more velvet rope — an invitation-only campaign with access granted mostly to friendly conservative media and a schedule full of curated church events, GOP meetings and Republican fundraisers that you’re welcome to attend — if you can find them or fork over the cash to get in.

Walker’s campaign spokeswoman reports he has done 140 public events in Georgia, 42 local interviews and more than 60 national interviews.

And the events are not always restricted. But they’re almost impossible for the average voter to find without following the right GOP county parties on Facebook or getting an email from a friend in the know. The press is not advised in advance of where he’ll be — only of where he’s already been.

Some events, like a recent motivational speech to a Christian school in Savannah, have gotten glowing reviews from the students in the audience, but no mention of the Senate race in the press coverage that followed. The local television station spoke to Walker briefly after the event, but noted they had not been able to ask about Ukraine or other important issues of the day.

Among the interviews Walker has done since he entered the Senate race are football podcasts, a mixed martial arts podcast, local conservative talk radio chats, and a buffet of softball sessions with Fox News, Newsmax, and members of the Trump family.

The conversations are not always limited to easy questions — but they are almost always before friendly audiences. Typically, the hosts are full of compliments, the questions are open-ended, and the follow-ups are limited. It’s celebrity press for a person seeking public office.

A good example was Lara Trump’s “Right Side” podcast in September, when the two talked about Walker’s childhood, their workout routines, and their dogs.

“You’ve done so much,” Trump said. “You even competed on the Olympic bobsled team. That’s straight out of ‘Cool Runnings!’”

She told him he reminded her of her father-in-law, since he’d never run for office either.

“I trust Donald, I trust him so much,” Walker said of the former president. “And he did some incredible things about this country that people don’t even realize.”

In October, Walker appeared from his Texas home on the “UFC Unfiltered” podcast with Jim Norton and Matt Serra, a mixed martial artist. “It doesn’t look like you age, my friend,” Serra said.

At one point, Walker was asked what he does for work, since the hosts were unaware that Walker had launched a race for Senate in Georgia.

“I tell ya, I don’t live in Georgia, but you’d have my vote,” Serra told him after a brief chat about the Senate race.

In January, there was the “Punt & Pass Podcast” with Aaron Murray and Drew Butler. “Herschel, what’s up my man?” Butler said before they did a deep dive on Alabama-Georgia football rivalries.

Conservative talk radio is a frequent format for Walker, too, including Austin Rhodes’ Augusta talk radio show and podcast.

In March, Rhodes compared politics to choosing members of a team.

“How do you recognize what you’re doing as being part of a team?” Rhodes asked Walker before telling Walker that Republicans needed to shore up their team.

On Monday, Walker appeared on Crain & Company, a YouTube sports show with 6,000 followers, that bills itself as “All ball and no politics.” True to form, the interview was all ball and almost no politics. He was introduced not as a Senate candidate, but “one of the greatest athletes of all time, ever in any sport.”

National interviews haven’t pressed Walker any harder.

Ahead of Trump’s visit to Georgia, Newsmax asked, “What do you hope he says tomorrow?”

Not all interviews for candidates have to be hardballs, and Walker does occasionally offer insight, even in friendly formats. In an interview for Glenn Beck’s podcast, Walker said he had hoped not to run for Senate but felt calledby God to do it.

“To be honest with you, I wasn’t going to run,” Walker said.

It’s easy to see why Walker’s campaign would rather not grant extensive media access to their candidate. Reporters outside of the conservative bubble ask lots of questions. Some of them wouldn’t be easy, nor should they be for a person who wants to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.

Walker has not granted one-on-one interviews to most of Georgia’s daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Savannah Morning News, or papers in Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon. He has spoken to the papers in Marietta and Brunswick.

If the AJC were to talk to Walker, we might ask him about details of his businesses that had unpaid loans or bankruptcies. Other reporters might ask about the police reports from women in his past who said they were afraid for their lives because of their interactions with him.

Or they might follow up on unexplained statements he’s made in friendly formats, like when he asked a church audience why there are still apes on earth if evolution is real. Or whether he thinks the 2020 election was stolen as Donald Trump and David Perdue both alleged. Walker has not discussed the question since becoming a candidate.

Speaking of Perdue, the candidate has given near-total access to his campaign for Governor, unlike his tightly controlled Senate race, and he’s a better candidate for it. He’s shown that the best was to dispense with questions is to answer them.

Walker’s team has said they plan to make him more available to more reporters once the GOP primary has come and gone. Specific reporters will be invited to attend individual events.

But an invitation-only campaign shouldn’t be acceptable for an office representing all Georgians — not just the ones on the guest list.