Herschel Walker's Senate campaign to forget

Herschel Walker.
Herschel Walker. (Photo Illustration: Jack Forbes; Photos: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the wake of former football great Herschel Walker's defeat on Tuesday to Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia's high-profile runoff election for the U.S. Senate, many Republicans expressed frustration that Walker had been picked as his party's nominee.

“We need better candidates,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Wednesday morning as the dust began to settle and the GOP was left wondering how it had lost a race in a state where Republicans handily won every other campaign in the midterms.

The story of how Walker, a former Heisman Trophy winner with no prior political experience, became the GOP nominee begins in 1984, one year after he had signed to play football for the New Jersey Generals in the budding United States Football League. Donald Trump purchased the team and quickly demanded that his coach give Walker the ball more. As a result, Walker notched the single-season rushing record for a professional football league.

In his book "Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us," Donald Trump Jr. recounted a 1984 trip to Disney World with Walker's family as well as visits from the football great at the Trump home in Greenwich, Conn.

Donald Trump and Herschel Walker shake hands.
Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with Herschel Walker at a rally at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in September 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The budding USFL, however, went belly-up in 1986 following a prolonged antitrust lawsuit brought by Trump against the NFL that helped bankrupt the league.

Trump and Walker remained in contact, and after Walker retired from professional football, he was invited in 2009 to appear as a contestant on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."

"I love you, I love you," Trump told the former running back on the program when he "fired" him from the show. "I am not a gay man and I love you, Herschel."

Walker is said to have encouraged Trump to launch his 2016 presidential bid, according to CNN. And when Trump lost to Joe Biden in 2020, Walker emerged as a key ally.

“I can guarantee you, Joe Biden didn’t get 50 million people voting for him. But yet people think that he’s won this election," Walker said during a Fox News interview in December 2020.

In a Jan. 4, 2021, tweet, two days before a mob of Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden, Walker continued to stoke Trump's baseless conspiracy theories.

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Trump retweeted Walker, adding his own message: "Herschel is speaking the truth!"

Recognizing the potentially powerful mix of football and politics, Trump approached Walker with a new idea: a campaign for U.S. Senate in a state where he was revered for his college football exploits, having led the University of Georgia to a national championship in 1980.

Football fame, after all, had been enough to propel former Auburn University head coach Tommy Tuberville to victory in a Senate race in neighboring Alabama.

“Herschel Walker will never let you down,” Trump promised in a statement endorsing him.

What followed, however, was one of the more disappointing campaigns for Republicans in U.S. history.

From the start, Walker's potential political vulnerabilities became an issue. In July of last year, the Associated Press published a story detailing his "turbulent personal history," including a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder that Walker had written about in his 2008 memoir. His abuse toward a former wife, including threats with a handgun, resulted in a judge issuing a protective order, and Walker admitted to playing Russian roulette "over six times" during his life.

As the campaign progressed, the scandals mounted. Walker was involved in a public standoff with two of his children whom he had never acknowledged. He made false claims about his education history and exaggerated involvement with law enforcement. Though he declared himself to be staunchly anti-abortion, women stepped forward to detail their claims that he had pressured and paid for them to get abortions.

His campaign stops provided his political opponents seemingly endless material from which to cut ads against him, including when he declared that the U.S. should keep using "gas-guzzling cars" that produce "good emissions." In fact, one of the more effective ads of the cycle featured a split screen that captured voter responses to the verbatim lines Walker had been delivering on the campaign trail.

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Capping the torrent of negative press, a complaint filed with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations alleged that Walker had committed a felony by voting in the state's elections while claiming a homestead exemption for a home he owns in Texas.

Throughout it all, Trump did not set foot in Georgia in the homestretch of the campaign. With his status as a GOP kingmaker degraded by a string of high-profile losses of candidates he had endorsed in the midterms, Trump instead saw fit to continue to promote the false claim that "You can never have fair & free elections with mail-in ballots."

Perhaps in part due to Trump's assurances, Warnock easily beat Walker in early voting in the runoff.

But even for some Republicans who voted in person, the sum total of the campaign waged by Walker left many agreeing with Blunt, including Georgia's outgoing GOP lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan.

“It was the most disappointing ballot I have ever stared at in my entire life,” Duncan told CNN’s John Berman on Wednesday evening. “I got two candidates that didn’t make any sense for me to put my vote behind. So I walked out of that ballot box, showing up to vote but not voting for either one of them.”

For others, that assessment didn't quite go far enough to describe their frustration.

“Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire. And an orphanage. Then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers,” Dan McLagan, a GOP political adviser, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.