OPINION: Staff leaks paint troubling picture of Herschel Walker’s campaign

052422 Atlanta: Supports wait for Herschel Walker to speak after his Republican Primary win on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta. Walker would face U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, in November. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

052422 Atlanta: Supports wait for Herschel Walker to speak after his Republican Primary win on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta. Walker would face U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, in November. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

When I was a staffer in the U.S. Senate, I occasionally saw Sen. Strom Thurmond on his way to and from votes in the U.S. Capitol. Thurmond, by then, was a not-at-all-spry 96-year-old, but he was still the chairman of the legendary Senate Armed Services Committee.

If you’re wondering how a man of such advanced age could still serve in the Senate, the answer is, not easily… and not without an enormous amount of staff to support him, literally.

Thurmond’s moves inside the Capitol were highly choreographed, with at least one aide, if not two, propping him up by his elbows to move from point A to point B. His staff also repeated people’s comments to him, only louder, and reminded him how he wanted to vote on this bill or that. “You want to vote yes, Senator!”

The truth is that Thurmond should have left the Senate long before he did and there was no hiding his diminished capacity from anyone, least of all his own staff. But admitting that the senator wasn’t up to the job didn’t serve the purposes of anyone around him — his power was their power — and so he stayed. And they stayed, too.

On Thursday of this week, The Daily Beast reported a bombshell story with echoes of that dynamic — that internal emails and texts between Herschel Walker’s campaign staffers showed his team “ridicule his intelligence,” “fear his mood swings and instability,” and “worry he could embarrass himself at any moment.”

Three people who spoke to the Daily Beast called Walker “a pathological liar,” and one staffer told the reporter Walker had repeatedly lied to his top aides when they asked whether he had more than the one child he discussed frequently before he got into the campaign. He repeatedly assured his aides that he did not. In reality, he had four, they learned later from separate press reports.

The story paints a picture of a campaign in chaos, which isn’t unusual, but with a top staff covering for the candidate to the outside world, including fellow Republicans, top donors, and voters.

After the story broke, manager Scott Paradise put out a statement calling it “pure gossip with anonymous sources from a left-leaning publication who has been obsessed with Herschel and his family.“ He also said that the staff is “100% committed to getting Herschel elected to the Senate.”

But by then, the story ricocheted around Washington and became the subject of national outlets’ reporting, which is why I’m delving into it, too.

Because in reality, that story alone is not likely to change the trajectory of the Walker campaign. The sole staffer spilling the beans, including sharing colleagues’ texts and emails, did so anonymously. All three people who called Walker a “pathological liar” also talked without sharing their own identities.

Voters in Georgia don’t know if this is coming from a well-connected aide or a summer intern. And very, very few will likely even read it in full.

But it’s important to understand that the trajectory of the Walker campaign isn’t what it once was. Unlike the days of the GOP primary, when Walker outpaced his GOP rivals by 50 points, he’s essentially tied with Sen. Raphael Warnock in nearly all public polling. (One showed Warnock ahead by 10 points, but even Warnock’s campaign was skeptical about that result.)

Being tied in a swing state seems about right for a Senate candidate, except that Gov. Brian Kemp is consistently outpacing Walker by three-to-five points in every poll. Real Clear Politics’ generic ballot poll average also shows Republicans ahead by about two points, but the average for the Warnock-Walker race shows Walker trailing by about two in a race that will likely be decided on the margins.

And while the anonymous staffer story doesn’t spell the end for Walker by any stretch, the drip-drip-drip of reports about Walker’s trouble telling the truth is costing him support, even among Republicans.

It’s not a stampede of voters running away from the candidate, who remains beloved by the GOP base and nostalgic football fans everywhere.

Instead, it’s a tense smile in a conversation among friends instead of a declaration of support. It’s the, “I’m not so sure about Herschel,” that I’ve heard from Republicans over and over recently, especially the kind who don’t go to his rallies but do go to the ballot box.

My own hairdresser asked me last week why Walker would say he was in the Cobb County Police Department, which the AJC reported, when he was not. The worries about Walker among all but the die-hards are real.

The two things that can strengthen Republican voters’ resolve for their candidate are Joe Biden’s own infirmities, which tell voters that the president, too, may not be up for the job he’s got, and Walker showing Georgia voters that he is fully competent and ready for the job he says he wants.

That includes agreeing to the three debates that Warnock has committed to but Walker has not, despite the Republican’s own confident assurances, “I told him, name the place and the time, and we can get it on.” Warnock has named the time and the place, but Walker’s team says he’s still evaluating many debate offers.

Walker could also sit down with the AJC for an interview, which he has not agreed to do, likely because we’ve written all sorts of articles that, though accurate, are not flattering. Those include details about his past violence against his ex-wife, his exaggerations about his chicken business, and the fact that his therapist also diagnoses gayness with crayons.

On the flip side, I have also written that Walker remains a beloved figure in his hometown of Wrightsville and that writing a book about his mental illness, as he did well before he was a candidate, helped to destigmatize the still-taboo subject for many who need to hear it.

Walker, as voters are learning, is a complicated character. Aren’t we all. But is he competent? They need to know that, too.

The most troubling element of the Daily Beast story is the portrait of his staff covering up for a candidate they believe to be dishonest and incompetent.

If that’s true, it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in politics. In fact, it’s a dynamic that’s repeated itself over and over.

Walker’s concerned, but anonymous, staffers should come forward if they know something voters ought to know. And if there’s nothing to tell, Walker can easily show voters himself, standing on his own.