Walker has limited public campaign stops, but he’s profited from private events

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker collected $415,000 for paid speeches between July 2020 and December 2021, including about $172,000 from six appearances since he announced his campaign in August. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker collected $415,000 for paid speeches between July 2020 and December 2021, including about $172,000 from six appearances since he announced his campaign in August. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Herschel Walker has spurned press conferences, avoided media interviews and held only a handful of public events since launching his U.S. Senate campaign. But he’s kept a busy slate of lucrative paid speaking engagements behind closed doors even after he entered the race.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of his personal financial disclosure showed the former football star collected $415,000 for paid speeches between July 2020 and December 2021, including about $172,000 from six appearances since he announced his campaign in August.

The Republican, who entered the race as the GOP front-runner with former President Donald Trump’s blessing, has continued his paid speeches even as he’s steered his media appearances toward friendly conservative outlets.

Buoyed by high name recognition and Trump’s support, Walker has bypassed many of the traditional campaign trail events as he races to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in an election that could decide control of the chamber.

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When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, shown with former first lady Melania Trump and ex-President Donald Trump at the World Series in Atlanta, spoke at a recent Cobb County GOP event, one of the people there said he only talked about his football career and how he met Donald Trump. “He didn’t really say what he stood for, and then he zipped out the back door," said Paul Brower, a GOP volunteer. "I was stunned.” Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, shown with former first lady Melania Trump and ex-President Donald Trump at the World Series in Atlanta, spoke at a recent Cobb County GOP event, one of the people there said he only talked about his football career and how he met Donald Trump. “He didn’t really say what he stood for, and then he zipped out the back door," said Paul Brower, a GOP volunteer. "I was stunned.” Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Combined ShapeCaption
When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, shown with former first lady Melania Trump and ex-President Donald Trump at the World Series in Atlanta, spoke at a recent Cobb County GOP event, one of the people there said he only talked about his football career and how he met Donald Trump. “He didn’t really say what he stood for, and then he zipped out the back door," said Paul Brower, a GOP volunteer. "I was stunned.” Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

It’s part of Walker’s campaign strategy to try to stay above the political fray — and ignore Republican rivals such as Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and military veteran Latham Saddler — while delivering platitude-filled remarks about bipartisanship and support for the Constitution.

“Walker is doing what he has to do to maintain his big primary lead — limit the opportunities to have unfriendly media interview him,” said Martha Zoller, a veteran Republican operative and former congressional candidate, citing polls showing Walker with a significant edge over his GOP opponents.

“When you’ve got a lead like Herschel has and an ability to get your message out around the mainstream media, then you use it,” she said, adding that she expects him to expand his outreach as the May primary nears.

Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount said the Republican has participated in about 70 interviews, though she acknowledged that more than half were with national media outlets. Of those, many involve appearances on friendly, conservative Fox News and NewsMax, or with sports media.

Blount said 31 of the interviews were with Georgia outlets, though that includes a spate of interviews about the University of Georgia’s national championship football season.

“He has met with dozens of reporters and thousands of Georgians and has been infinitely more accessible than Sen. Warnock,” she said.

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Democrats such as state Rep Josh McLaurin think Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker has limited his public appearances to avoid telling the public about his positions on issues and to clamp down on gaffes while speaking to the media. “His advisers are familiar with the old saying: If you can’t say anything sane, don’t say anything at all,” McLaurin said. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Democrats such as state Rep Josh McLaurin think Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker has limited his public appearances to avoid telling the public about his positions on issues and to clamp down on gaffes while speaking to the media. “His advisers are familiar with the old saying: If you can’t say anything sane, don’t say anything at all,” McLaurin said. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Combined ShapeCaption
Democrats such as state Rep Josh McLaurin think Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker has limited his public appearances to avoid telling the public about his positions on issues and to clamp down on gaffes while speaking to the media. “His advisers are familiar with the old saying: If you can’t say anything sane, don’t say anything at all,” McLaurin said. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Democrats see a calculated effort to avoid telling Georgians his positions while trying to skirt more embarrassing gaffes. In one recent interview with a conservative radio host, Walker called the late John Lewis, a longtime U.S. House member, a senator and mischaracterized his position on voting rights.

“His advisers are familiar with the old saying: If you can’t say anything sane, don’t say anything at all,” Democratic state Rep. Josh McLaurin said.

‘Closed-door events’

Paid speeches have complicated campaigns before, particularly among Democrats who highlight inclusive messages of transparency and economic equality.

Hillary Clinton faced scrutiny for being too cozy with Wall Street for earning millions of dollars in fees from big banks. And Joe Biden came under criticism for a $200,000 payout at a Michigan event where he praised a Republican facing a tough opponent.

Walker’s disclosure, which pegs his net worth between $29 million and $65 million, showed he earned about $4 million in income from late 2020 to late 2021. That includes payouts from his poultry production company, sports marketing companies and a mental health care provider.

His paid speeches offered a window into his political strategy. He was paid $20,000 in October and $27,000 in November to speak to two clinics that seek to deter abortions. And he collected $52,000 from a pair of speeches to the Boys & Girls Club charity in 2021.

Walker also netted $22,500 in August 2020 to speak at a meeting of the Republican Attorneys General Association on Sea Island. Attorney General Chris Carr later resigned as chairman of the group after its policy arm financed a robocall urging supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The financial disclosure offers only a partial list of his paid speeches. He’s set to deliver remarks Feb. 10 at the University of North Texas as part of a speaker series available to “sponsors” starting at $2,500.

Public records show Walker will be paid $76,000 for the events, along with first-class airfare, hotel accommodations and other expenses. It indicates that half the contract, $38,500, was due in August, a payment that didn’t appear in Walker’s financial disclosure.

A Walker campaign official said the speeches were booked through an outside agency and that the candidate doesn’t receive any money until he delivers the speech. The school didn’t immediately comment.

Walker, meanwhile, hasn’t seemed inclined to change his strategy. His campaign counts 73 “listening sessions,” tours or political events since August, though many of them are closed to the public and the media.

An event Walker is set to attend Thursday hosted by the Republican Women of Forsyth County, for instance, was labeled “members only” after the group received media requests to attend.

Walker’s appearance at a Cobb County GOP event in November left some attendees scratching their heads.

“He came in through the back door, gave a short talk about his football career and how he met Trump,” said Paul Brower, an east Cobb real estate agent and GOP volunteer. “He didn’t really say what he stood for, and then he zipped out the back door. I was stunned.”

Democrats promise that Walker’s closed-door events and paid speeches will haunt him through the campaign.

“Herschel Walker needs to tell Georgians what he’s saying to get paid at closed-door events across the country,” said Dan Gottlieb of the Democratic Party of Georgia.