'Let Herschel be Herschel': Walker's icon status brings him out of Trump's shadow in U.S. Senate race

Herschel Walker is the Donald Trump-endorsed candidate in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. To Georgia voters, though, the biggest influence in the race is Walker himself and not the former president.

"I think he gets a bump from Trump among some people, but again the bump is inconsequential," said M.V. "Trey" Hood III, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, who recently conducted a poll on the impact of a Trump endorsement for statewide positions. "I think it's just because of who he is."

According to a recent poll from Hood, first reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Walker is polling at 64.3% among likely Republican primary voters. State Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black comes in next at 7.7% followed by former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler at 1.9% and Kelvin King, Josh Clark and Jon McColumn, all polling below Saddler.

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U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker addresses the crowd during a November 2021 campaign event at the Columbia County GOP Headquarters in Martinez. Walker is a football legend, the star player on the University of Georgia team that won the 1980 national championship.

Some of those Georgians polled were told that Trump had endorsed Walker before being asked about their preferred candidate; among this group his support climbed to 76%.

"How do you divide out someone who's already an icon in the state from the Trump endorsement?" said Ed Lindsey Jr., a GOP strategist and former Republican Georgia House member. "It's going to take someone smarter than me to figure it out."

Walker is a football legend, the star player on the University of Georgia team that won the 1980 national championship. But with a career in the NFL, several businesses, a stint at the Olympics as a bobsledder and even as an mixed martial arts fighter, he has stayed in the public view.

According to Walker's campaign communications director, Mallory Blount, he was considering a run for office well before he ever talked to Trump about it.

The Trump Effect

Former President Donald Trump is attempting to leverage his influence with Georgia Republican voters to bolster the primary election hopes of seven candidates. Leading up the May 24 vote, journalists from the Savannah Morning News, Augusta Chronicle and Athens Banner-Herald will examine the role the former president is playing in key Georgia races.

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Blount had worked for the Trump White House, and then as a spokesperson for Gov. Brian Kemp. When she heard Walker was staffing his campaign, she resigned the same day and started with Walker the next.

"He played football 15-plus years before I was born, and I grew up a fan just because of the presence he has in the state," said Blount. "I think he is behind maybe Jimmy Carter, slightly, and Martin Luther King — the most famous person to come out of the state. And that started with football but ...he obviously launched as such a bigger international star."

Focused on the general election

Whether his public profile, which includes admitted struggles with mental health and possibly exaggerated claims of success, will help or hinder him is the subject of most of the primary attacks from Walker's opponents.

Saddler said Walker is succeeding mostly because of his familiarity with the electorate.

"I think it's because voters don't know about another option yet," he said.

Saddler plans to spend heavily in the next few weeks to get his name out and hopes to force Walker into a runoff. The top vote getter in the primary must win a majority - 50% plus one vote - to avoid a runoff.

"This is a guaranteed loss if Herschel Walker is the nominee," Saddler said of the general election, where the GOP nominee will face incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. "He may have name ID but if you can't perform at the basic level as a candidate, that's not going to get you across the goal line in November."

Black, the agriculture commissioner, has been even harsher in his criticism of Walker, commissioning multiple TV attack adds. Black's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Both Saddler and Black are strong candidates, according to Lindsey.

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks with Mary Boles, of West Augusta, during a campaign event at the Columbia County GOP Headquarters in Martinez on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

"Gary Black ... has had a very positive impact on the state as the state agricultural commissioner," he said. "Latham Saddler has a solid background both in terms of military service and in the business community. So regardless of what happens in this race, if they come in short I certainly hope they stick around and we find a place for them in the state somewhere else."

But despite Walker skipping the first major Republican primary debate in April, as well as a number of other major events, he is still far beyond his opponents in polling and money, having raised $14.3 million as of the end of March.

His campaign has been focused on the general election since January, according to Blount, and is trying to run a unifying campaign for Republicans.

"Obviously he's happy to have the president's endorsement," Blount said. "We also have Mitch McConnell and pretty much every other establishment Republican's support as well. So I think this campaign has sort of uniquely toed the line between those two things. We're trying to unite the base, especially after what happened in 2020."

Multiple people interviewed for this story noted Walker had been running a positive campaign so far.

"Even when I watch him interviewed about anything, I just don't see a lot of negative in him, and that's kind of refreshing now," said Donald Chumley, a Savannah school administrator and Walker's Bulldog teammate in 1981 and 1982. "He's speaking kind words about what needs to happen instead of the bad things that have happened."

Chumley said that persona reflects how Walker was in college.

"He was always a good teammate, a good friend; he was always there to help," Chumley said. "The qualities he showed beyond the football field are the qualities I try to this day to instill in these young guys I work with."

'Going to have to be willing to take some hits'

Should Walker win the GOP nomination, politicos question whether his icon status will be enough to carry him through the general election, should he win the nomination.

"From a campaign standpoint, it makes perfect sense to keep him above the fray (in the primary)," he said. "But I will say this, at some point he's going to have to be prepared to be challenged, and he's going to be facing a very tough opponent in Rev. Warnock, so he's going to have to be willing to take some hits, similar to the one's he took going up the middle as a running back."

Lindsey said Warnock has also been running good ads and seems to have a more positive tone in his campaign.

"Right now it would appear that Herschel Walker would be the Republican nominee, and Rev. Warnock would be the Democratic nominee, and I'm certain there will be third party entities there running negative ads, because that's what they get paid to do," he said. "But it would be refreshing for this state if we had two candidates running on positive messages for what they want to do for Georgia and the vision they have for the state."

Blount said that Walker has been focusing on meeting people across the state, having visited all but about 20 counties so far.

"He's obviously a first-time candidate, we've put a lot of focus on getting him briefed up on policy, and it was really important to him to go to all the counties and talk to people from different sectors," Blount said. "He's not going to be a constitutional scholar, but he's very convicted in his beliefs."

Walker has appeared for interviews on conservative outlets like the Daily Wire and Fox News but also with less traditional communications, such as sitting down for an interview with rapper — and vocal Bernie Sanders supporter — Killer Mike. Blount said Walker is trying to run on being the person Georgians have known for decades.

"Our motto on this campaign is 'Let Herschel be Herschel,' because who he is has gotten him pretty darn far," she said. "My job is to set my boss up to be himself."

Whether people like Herschel being Herschel or not, his name seems to carry far more weight in Georgia than Trump's endorsement of him.

"I think you know, Ronald Reagan had a name, and Donald Trump had a name," Chumley said. "I think it helps him, but I think what he does if he gets elected is going to define him a lot more probably than maybe his playing days."

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Herschel Walker's Senate run powered more by football fame than Trump