Herschel Walker is running for U.S. Senate in Georgia

University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker announced that he will run as a Republican in next year's U.S. Senate race. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker announced that he will run as a Republican in next year's U.S. Senate race. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker launched a campaign Tuesday for the U.S. Senate with former President Donald Trump’s support, bringing both his celebrity and his untested political background to the premier 2022 contest.

Walker becomes the most prominent Republican to line up against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in next year’s race, ending intense speculation about whether he’d move from his home in Texas to Georgia to run for the office.

Walker didn’t immediately comment, though a formal announcement is expected within days. He filed paperwork Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission establishing his candidacy, a move that came shortly after he registered to vote in Georgia.

He entered the race after months of pleas from Trump, who predicted the former running back would be as “unstoppable” as a candidate as he was on the field. “Run Herschel, run!” he said in March.

Walker’s name recognition, combined with Trump’s seal of approval, makes the first-time candidate the instant Republican front-runner — and sets up a potential general election between two Black candidates in one of the nation’s top political battlegrounds.

But some senior Republicans worry that Walker will inevitably stumble against Warnock, who has emerged as a fundraising powerhouse and national figure since defeating GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler to become the first Black U.S. senator in Georgia history.

Along with his long-standing Texas residency, Walker has a history of violent and erratic behavior, some of which he’s attributed to his struggles with mental illness. His stance on major policies, along with his ability to court grassroots voters and donors, is unknown. He’s skipped key political events that most prospective contenders in Georgia attend.

Still, his flirtation with a run froze out other prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who repeatedly said he wouldn’t run until Walker ruled himself out. Trump’s support for Walker, Carter said, meant he’s essentially a lock to win the primary.

Despite the odds, three other contenders entered the race months ago, and they could immediately test Walker’s popularity with Republican voters — and the former president’s clout in Georgia.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is the best-known. The three-term incumbent has picked up key endorsements and painted Walker as a carpetbagger who should have long ago moved to the state to “learn what Georgians have on their minds.”

The other two contenders are Kelvin King, a military veteran who was one of Trump’s top Black surrogates; and Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL and Trump administration official who has surprised Republicans with his early fundraising success.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock - shown with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, left - has become a national figure since he and Ossoff won runoff elections in January. He's also become a fundraising powerhouse, with more than $10.5 million socked away for his reelection campaign.  (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Whoever emerges will face a battle-hardened opponent in Warnock, who along with Jon Ossoff scored stunning victories in January to flip control of the U.S. Senate. Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, won’t have to worry about a divisive primary, and he’s already stocked his campaign war chest with more than $10.5 million.

The Democrat has said little, however, about a potential matchup against Walker. He’s instead emphasized his support for the bipartisan infrastructure plan that narrowly passed the U.S. Senate and other measures, including pending legislation aimed at bolstering voting rights and expanding social services.

“If you hear me talking for a while, you hear me bring up my dad. I had an older father, he was born in 1917,” Warnock said when asked about Walker’s potential candidacy at an Atlanta Press Club event last week. “He told me if somebody hires you to do a job, do the job they hired you to do. So right now I’m focused on doing the job.”

A tumultuous past

Walker’s decision caps months of buzz about whether he would seek the office.

Sharp-elbowed politicians wouldn’t normally wait for an out-of-state political newcomer to make up his mind. But Trump’s enduring popularity with Georgia Republicans, along with Walker’s celebrity appeal, forced other contenders to the sidelines.

As Walker waited it out, a torrent of media reports raised concerns about his candidacy, bringing to light questionable business practices, a voting history with lengthy gaps between cast ballots and details of a tumultuous divorce that could shadow his Senate bid.

Walker has disclosed some of his violent tendencies and struggles with mental illness on his own, in a book published in 2008 that recounts playing Russian roulette and pointing a gun at his own head while sitting at his kitchen table in 1991.

The book, “Breaking Free,” also explores his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder, a condition he said he developed to combat the bullying he faced as an overweight child with a speech disorder.

Since then, however, reports have documented the violent threats he leveled in 2005 against his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, which led to a judge granting her a protective order. She has said she felt “there was somebody there that was evil” when he threatened her.

More recently, Walker’s current wife has come under scrutiny for potentially casting an illegal ballot in Georgia’s November election. Julie Blanchard lives in Texas, though she owns a house in Georgia. It’s illegal for nonresidents to vote in Georgia in most circumstances, and state elections officials have opened an investigation.

The questionable vote brought added attention because Walker has called for the prosecution of voter fraud and promoted false claims of voting irregularities that echo accusations by Trump, who tried and failed to overturn his election defeat in Georgia.

Blanchard initially told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she and her husband are “residents in both places.” She later said she considers herself a resident of Georgia, where she has a driver’s license and does business.

Hurdles ahead

The 59-year-old Walker faces other significant hurdles that have little to do with his past.

The first-time candidate must win over activists, woo donors and hone policies under a harsh spotlight in one of the nation’s most closely watched contests, a top target for Republicans seeking to take back control of the Senate.

He must also navigate a thorny reception from the GOP establishment. A number of high-profile Republicans in Georgia and Washington have been critical of Walker, and some have urged him not to run.

Black has quickly picked up endorsements from former Gov. Nathan Deal and dozens of county sheriffs. In a social media post Tuesday, Black clutched a football as he welcomed Walker “back to Georgia” and invited him to upcoming GOP events.

And Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has privately encouraged Loeffler and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to consider comeback attempts. While Perdue has ruled out another run, Loeffler has yet to decide.

Not surprisingly, Democrats cheered on the “nightmare scenario” of a chaotic Republican primary.

“By the end of this long, divisive, and expensive intraparty fight, it’ll be clear that none of these candidates are focused on the issues that matter most to Georgians,” said Dan Gottlieb of the state Democratic Party.

In his limited public remarks, Walker has brushed aside the negative media attention and the grumblings from fellow Republicans. His allies note that recent surveys, including by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, show he’s neck-and-neck with Warnock.

Herschel Walker, who has known Donald Trump since the 1980s, praised the former president at last year's Republican National Convention.  “Some people don’t like his style, the way he knocks down obstacles that get in the way of his goals,” Walker said of Trump. “People on the opposing team, they don’t like when I ran over them either. But that’s how you get the job done.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

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Credit: NYT

His candidacy brings renewed attention to the Trump-driven tension in Georgia Republican politics, which has grown more strained since the state voted Democratic in a presidential contest for the first time since 1992.

Trump has vowed to exact revenge on Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans who didn’t back his illegal bid to overturn his defeat. And he’s taken extraordinary interest in down-ticket races, picking sides in the race for secretary of state and Georgia GOP chair.

The Republican friction contrasts with a Democratic ticket that could feature Warnock and Stacey Abrams, who is expected to mount a rematch against Kemp. Abrams and Warnock are close friends, and she encouraged him to run for the U.S. Senate. Neither face credible rivals within the party.

Each of the GOP Senate contenders has positioned himself as a staunch Trump ally, but Walker’s relationship with the former president stretches to the 1980s, when he played for a USFL team that Trump owned.

The two have celebrated birthdays together and, in an appearance at the Republican National Convention last year, Walker used a coveted speaking slot to praise Trump as a visionary.

“Some people don’t like his style, the way he knocks down obstacles that get in the way of his goals,” Walker said. “People on the opposing team, they don’t like when I ran over them either. But that’s how you get the job done.”

His campaign advisers stress he’ll also emphasize his personal story to appeal to moderate voters, particularly wealthy suburban women, who see the former president as a menace.

Walker grew up in the east Georgia hamlet of Wrightsville, where he led the high school team to a state championship and graduated at the top of his class.

He starred over three seasons at the University of Georgia, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1982, and went on to a professional football career that ended in 1997. Later, he embarked on a brief career as a mixed-martial arts fighter and built a national food business.

Who’s running for the U.S. Senate:

Raphael Warnock: The Democrat is seeking election to a full six-year term in 2022 after winning a special election runoff in January to fill the seat retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson had held. Warnock, who is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, is the state’s first Black U.S. senator.

Gary Black: The three-term Republican agriculture commissioner entered the race in June and has highlighted his career in public service and his ties to Georgia’s rural community. He’s picked up support from GOP establishment figures, including former Gov. Nathan Deal.

Kelvin King: An owner of a metro Atlanta construction company, King became the first Republican to enter the race when he announced in April. King, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was also one of Trump’s most prominent Black supporters in 2020.

Latham Saddler: The Republican, a former University of Georgia student body president, taught himself Farsi after his graduation and served as a Navy SEAL over an eight-year military career. He later was a White House fellow in the Trump administration and a banking executive.

Herschel Walker: The former University of Georgia football star was encouraged to run as a Republican by his longtime friend former President Donald Trump. He recently moved back to Georgia, registering to vote in the state on Aug. 17, after residing for years in Texas.