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

Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donald Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donald Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Herschel Walker hasn’t lived in Georgia for decades. He’s never held public office, doesn’t attend the sort of Republican events that are mainstays on the political calendar and has bypassed the backslapping fundraising circuit that helps decide winners and losers in the state’s premier races.

And yet Walker is viewed by many Republicans as the front-runner in next year’s GOP primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, even though he hasn’t yet entered the race that other contenders joined weeks ago.

Walker’s sudden rise in Georgia politics from his estate in Texas has alternately energized, mystified and frustrated state conservatives who see the football great’s potential candidacy as a chain reaction of events that could only play out in the Donald Trump era.

It was Trump who publicly urged Walker to run shortly after his own election defeat, saying his old friend would be “unstoppable.” And it was Trump last week who said on a conservative radio show that Walker was readying to run.

“He told me he’s going to, and I think he will,” Trump said. “I had dinner with him a week ago. He’s a great guy. He’s a patriot. He’s a very loyal person.”

Walker has only confirmed he’s still considering a bid, but his likely candidacy is an open secret in Georgia’s political world. In recent weeks, he’s lined up advisers and started building the foundation of a campaign. Senior Republicans who once heard zip from Walker now see him as a surefire contender.

He would be the rare celebrity candidate in Georgia, a state where famous sports figures and media personalities have mainly steered clear of politics. (For example, Walker’s famed former coach, Vince Dooley, passed on a run for governor in the late 1980s, saying his heart wasn’t in it.)

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One of Herschel Walker's greatest strengths as a U.S. Senate candidate would be his name recognition as a football star who won the Heisman Trophy and led the University of Georgia to a national championship in 1980. W.A. Bridges Jr. / AJC file photo

Credit: W.A. Bridges Jr./ AJC file photo

One of Herschel Walker's greatest strengths as a U.S. Senate candidate would be his name recognition as a football star who won the Heisman Trophy and led the University of Georgia to a national championship in 1980. W.A. Bridges Jr. / AJC file photo
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One of Herschel Walker's greatest strengths as a U.S. Senate candidate would be his name recognition as a football star who won the Heisman Trophy and led the University of Georgia to a national championship in 1980. W.A. Bridges Jr. / AJC file photo

Credit: W.A. Bridges Jr./ AJC file photo

Credit: W.A. Bridges Jr./ AJC file photo

His name recognition from his career at the University of Georgia, where he won the Heisman Trophy and led the team to a national championship, would be one of his greatest assets. So would his potential to help broaden the party’s appeal as a Black conservative in a matchup against Warnock, the first African American senator in the state’s history.

But Walker’s potential candidacy triggers more questions than a conventional candidate would face, some more freighted than others. His history of mental illness, including violent episodes he’s publicly addressed, will be invoked by rivals from both sides of the party divide.

And he must move to Georgia from Texas, where he’s lived most of his adult life, to woo a conservative base that knows him for his athletic legend — and not for his ability to connect with voters, his grasp of policy ideals or his prowess on the campaign trail.

“Herschel Walker will need to come back to Georgia and campaign. He will need to show that he is a conservative,” Doug Collins, a former Republican congressman and 2020 Senate candidate, said on his radio show.

“I have never heard Herschel Walker’s position on pro-life. I haven’t,” Collins said. “I’ve never heard his position on gun control. I’ve never heard his position on a lot of these issues that are conservative issues.”

‘The long haul’

That Republicans are waiting anxiously for an iconic football star to kick off his campaign while veteran politicians wait on the sidelines is a symbol of Trump’s enduring influence in state Republican politics.

The former president has a long relationship with Walker dating to his stint on a United States Football League team that Trump owned. Walker was a key surrogate for Trump during his 2016 campaign and spoke on his behalf at last year’s Republican National Convention.

Even the hint of a Trump endorsement in the race has kept well-known Georgia figures out of the race. For months, the only two GOP contenders were military veterans Kelvin King and Latham Saddler, both conservatives with impressive backgrounds but low public profiles.

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Many of Georgia's best-known Republicans are waiting to see what Herschel Walker does before they consider launching a U.S. Senate bid. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (left) is the exception, kicking off his campaign at last month's state GOP convention. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Many of Georgia's best-known Republicans are waiting to see what Herschel Walker does before they consider launching a U.S. Senate bid. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (left) is the exception, kicking off his campaign at last month's state GOP convention. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
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Many of Georgia's best-known Republicans are waiting to see what Herschel Walker does before they consider launching a U.S. Senate bid. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (left) is the exception, kicking off his campaign at last month's state GOP convention. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Collins decided early that he wouldn’t try to wage a rematch against Warnock following a third-place finish in last year’s special election. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter has said he’ll wait for Walker to make up his mind. And former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is also holding pat for now.

The biggest exception is Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who launched his campaign at the Georgia GOP convention in June — a gathering of thousands of activists that Walker skipped — and has since built out a grassroots network in every Georgia county.

“I’m in this race to win the primary and the general election,” Black said of the possibility of a Walker run. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are so far avoiding a direct attack on the football icon, instead focusing on policies that helped Warnock and Jon Ossoff score a sweep in January’s Senate runoffs.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters in May at a gathering of Black farmers in Byromville. For now, Democrats have chosen to avoid attacking Herschel Walker, who could challenge Warnock in next year's Senate race. Instead, they continue to focus on issues that helped the party sweep January's Senate runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters in May at a gathering of Black farmers in Byromville. For now, Democrats have chosen to avoid attacking Herschel Walker, who could challenge Warnock in next year's Senate race. Instead, they continue to focus on issues that helped the party sweep January's Senate runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters in May at a gathering of Black farmers in Byromville. For now, Democrats have chosen to avoid attacking Herschel Walker, who could challenge Warnock in next year's Senate race. Instead, they continue to focus on issues that helped the party sweep January's Senate runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Whether it’s Herschel Walker, Kelly Loeffler or any of the other candidates, their priority is doing whatever it takes to come out ahead in this chaotic primary,” said Dan Gottlieb, an adviser with the Democratic Party of Georgia, “not helping Georgia families recover from this pandemic, creating new job opportunities or expanding access to quality, affordable health care.”

A big unknown

One of the biggest unknowns is how Walker would confront his history of mental illness — and how his rivals will address it.

Walker says he suffers from dissociative identity disorder, which he traces to an isolated childhood in rural east Georgia where his speech impediment made him a frequent target for bullies. Voices in his head that once calmed him steadily transformed into distinct identities that shaped his actions.

He outlines his mental illness in vivid detail in his 2008 book, “Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder,” writing candidly about his infidelity and suicidal thoughts.

His former wife, Cindy Grossman, has also spoken publicly about her then-husband’s threatening behavior and said that he once put a gun to her head during a violent rage that Walker later said he didn’t remember.

His mental illness seems certain to be discussed on the campaign trail, if not directly by other candidates, then by their allies. But veteran politicians also say his forthright battle with the illness could become an inspiring part of his personal story.

“All candidates face challenges, and you can get by as long as you have a good explanation,” said former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who ran for the Senate in 2014.

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Commenting on Herschel Walker's history of mental illness, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said, “All candidates face challenges, and you can get by as long as you have a good explanation.” CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Commenting on Herschel Walker's history of mental illness, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said, “All candidates face challenges, and you can get by as long as you have a good explanation.” CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
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Commenting on Herschel Walker's history of mental illness, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said, “All candidates face challenges, and you can get by as long as you have a good explanation.” CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

That hasn’t settled Republican concerns. Some privately complained that Walker wouldn’t return their calls or griped that the drawn-out process would hurt the party in the long run, particularly if he has second thoughts and decides against announcing.

Others worry his first day of the campaign would be his best — and that it would all go downhill if he doesn’t chart his strategy properly.

“He needs to show conservative policy positions early, prove he can look forward and take it to Warnock and build a professional operation,” said Cole Muzio, who runs the conservative Frontline Policy Council.

“There’s no doubt that the impact of his announcement will be massive,” Muzio said. “But after taking significant time to evaluate the race, he will need to demonstrate he’s ready for the nation’s most important Senate contest — one we shouldn’t and can’t afford to lose.”

Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative commentator, said he’s more concerned about lasting damage to Walker’s campaign from campaign staffers than the critiques of his past or his policy stances.

“His day-to-day team is going to matter, and because there’s been buzz for some time in Trump circles, I worry a rich man from out of state with fame is going to be circled by grifters like vultures do to roadkill,” Erickson said.

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Former professional football player Herschel Walker reacts to President Donald Trump as he speaks during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in September. Walker and Trump have known each other for decades, and Walker spoke on the president's behalf at the 2020 Republican National Convention. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Former professional football player Herschel Walker reacts to President Donald Trump as he speaks during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in September. Walker and Trump have known each other for decades, and Walker spoke on the president's behalf at the 2020 Republican National Convention. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
caption arrowCaption
Former professional football player Herschel Walker reacts to President Donald Trump as he speaks during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in September. Walker and Trump have known each other for decades, and Walker spoke on the president's behalf at the 2020 Republican National Convention. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Walker, meanwhile, is keeping mostly mum. He tweeted a cryptic video in June featuring a Georgia license plate that suggested he was moving to the state. And in a statement shortly after Trump’s radio interview, Walker said he’s still not ready to declare himself a candidate.

“Georgia is my home — I love Georgia, and I love this country,” Walker said in the statement. “And I believe we need fighters to step forward and help save both. Know this much: If I run, I’ll be all-in, and we will do whatever it takes to win for Georgia.”

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