Trump fuels Herschel Walker Senate hype in Georgia

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Herschel Walker hasn’t campaigned, attended local party events or started fundraising. He’s a longtime Texas resident.

Yet the prospect that the former college and pro football legend might jump into the GOP Senate race in Georgia has state Republicans anxiously looking for clues about his intentions, aware that his candidacy could suddenly rewrite the script in one of the nation’s most important Senate contests of 2022.

Signs that the former University of Georgia star might be nearing a decision has GOP supporters and detractors ablaze with speculation in a race that’s essentially frozen until he announces his intentions.

“He's got a genuine concern for the country, he loves Georgia. Certainly he has a longstanding relationship with President Trump,” said Randy Evans, a former ambassador in the Trump administration and longtime Georgia Republican operative.

The combination, he said, is a “formidable package.”

Just a single tweet last week from Walker sparked a new round of discussions about Republican chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in his bid for a full Senate term.

“Georgia on my mind,” Walker said in a tweet Thursday, which featured a short video of him in a sweaty t-shirt, revving the engine of his car. Amid questions about his residency, the Georgia license plate did not go unnoticed — the former Heisman Trophy winner must move from Texas to Georgia to run.

“I’m getting ready and we can run with the big dogs,” he said in the video, which said nothing about a Senate bid.

Walker’s storied career as a professional athlete is only part of his appeal to many Georgia Republicans. He also has the enthusiastic support of former President Donald Trump, with whom he has a relationship that dates back four decades.

Walker’s three seasons as the marquee player with a USFL team owned by Trump in the 1980s kicked off a longstanding friendship that would later see Walker become a contestant on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice television show. In a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention, the former football star defended the former president against accusations of racism; he remains a close friend of the Trump family.

Walker was seated next to the former president at his birthday celebration last week, according to an Instagram video from the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

In a statement, Trump Jr. praised Walker as the best possible candidate in the Senate race.

“Not only is Herschel Walker a long-time family friend, he’s a strong America First conservative and would immediately enter the Senate race as the frontrunner if he decides to pull the trigger on it,” Trump Jr. said.

An aide to the former president, who requested anonymity, said the “team is very pleased Herschel is close to making a decision. He's a star, great friend of 45, and perfect candidate.”

Yet even with Trump’s endorsement, some Georgia Republicans are hesitant. Walker’s long deliberation has frustrated some who worry that the party is losing time rebuilding in the wake of two devastating Senate runoff defeats in January. Warnock’s reelection campaign has already raised more than $5 million through March, a sum that’s likely increased substantially in the last three months — his new total will become public in mid-July.

“We're getting really late in the process,” said one GOP operative in the state. “Our nominee, whomever that person is, should be in the race by now and should be raising money.”

Walker could not be reached for comment.

Should Walker declare his candidacy, he’ll have to navigate a GOP primary field that could be competitive. Gary Black, the state’s agriculture commissioner, announced a run earlier this month and two military veterans, Kelvin King and Latham Saddler, are also in the race. Rep. Buddy Carter has said he’s encouraging Walker to run and hopes the former football player joins the race. But if Walker passes on a bid, the Savannah-area congressman plans to run for the seat. And former Sen. Kelly Loeffler continues to consider a rematch against Warnock.

Some Republicans are concerned that Walker’s popularity as a professional athlete isn’t necessarily transferable, especially in such a closely divided state.

“I love Herschel Walker, I’m a double Dawg,” said Republican strategist Martha Zoller, referring to her two college degrees from the University of Georgia. “I think he's an amazing person. But I think there's a big difference between being a football star 40 years ago and being a candidate for [the] United States Senate.”

“He will be a great test of Trump's support,” Zoller added.

Georgia's Herschel Walker  goes above Notre Dame's defense to score a touchdown in the  Sugar Bowl on   Jan. 1, 1981. Walker scored twice as Georgia won the national championship.
Georgia's Herschel Walker goes above Notre Dame's defense to score a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1981. Walker scored twice as Georgia won the national championship.

If Walker does make it official, it will give Georgia Republicans a marquee name in a race that is critical to GOP hopes of winning back the Senate majority. His bid would not only gauge Trump’s continued sway over the party, it would test the power of celebrity candidates in the post-Trump era and advance the party’s efforts to diversify by featuring a Black candidate in a state where Black voters have been crucial to recent Democratic gains.

The state party chair, David Shafer, confirmed to POLITICO that he spoke to Walker “a couple weeks ago” and said Walker was “giving it serious consideration.” Walker has also been encouraged to run by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally. Graham and Walker have spoken multiple times, including as recently as last week, according to a Graham aide.

“He’s one of the most well-rounded people to consider running for office, and he would be a transformative senator,” Graham said in a statement.

Other Republicans say Walker has been wise to be deliberate. Running as a first-time candidate is complex, and he’ll have to untangle his business assets and also build a campaign team around him.

Evans said there was no rush for Walker to make a decision.

“There's a premium, when you're in his position, to take your time and to get it right and to make sure it's the right decision,” he said. “By getting it right now, you avoid a lot fewer distractions in the election year itself.”

Other high-profile Republicans like former Sen. David Perdue and former Rep. Doug Collins have passed on the race, but Loeffler hasn’t ruled it out. She met with Trump and tweeted out a picture of the two of them earlier this month, and followed that up with a meeting last week with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“While her focus continues to be on the work of greater Georgia, Senator Loeffler has been clear that she’s not ruling anything out with regard to future decisions,” Stephen Lawson, a spokesperson for Loeffler, said in a statement. “She enjoyed a productive conversation with Leader McConnell about the situation in Georgia and how to ensure Republicans are successful in 2022 and beyond.”

Heath Garrett, who was a top aide to retired Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, said a prospective Walker bid should be taken seriously even though he’s mostly known for his rushing yards and not his vote-getting talents.

“I wouldn't underestimate his ability to help the Republican ticket,” Garrett said. “By bringing diversity, but also being a lot wiser politically than people give him credit for.”