Short of some unforeseen implosion, Herschel Walker is going to handily win the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat from Georgia now held by Raphael Warnock. And Walker will do it by running the easiest campaign ever.
Debates? Skip ’em. Sit down with reporters and be grilled on policy? Nah. See, Herschel Walker doesn’t make campaign stops so much as he makes appearances, speaks to fans, and poses for photos.
Welcome to the life of a celebrity candidate.
Everywhere Walker goes, people chant his name. They beg for autographs. They tell him how much they adore him. The fact that he has suffered a mental illness that, in his telling, led him to play Russian roulette with himself and has fantasized about shooting a man point-blank for the “visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood—like a Fourth of July firework—exploding behind him” doesn’t even register with his admirers. Same goes for the stories from his ex-wife about Walker allegedly putting a gun to her head. And likewise with the story from a romantic interest, now deceased, who said Walker threatened to “blow her head off” and kill himself.
Walker is a beloved sports celebrity and pal of Donald Trump, who in 1983 bought the pro football team that Walker was playing on after quitting the University of Georgia. The mere mention of Walker’s 1982 Heisman Trophy melts certain voters—especially the coveted white male GOP demographic—into a puddle. Don’t roll your eyes; he’s performing brilliantly in his first major political foray. Walker consistently leads his primary opponents by more than 50 points. That’s a tasty dish of old crow that Mitch McConnell is happy to pull up a chair to eat up and guzzle down.
Think about it. Given Walker’s enviable poll position, why would he subject himself to the vetting typically done through debates and tough media interviews? What decent campaign would willingly put its candidate in a forum to answer questions about their mental illness, domestic violence, and thoughts about self-harm? Besides, it’s not like he needs the media coverage to build up name ID; Georgians have been wearing his jersey for decades.
The whole situation may be appalling to those who cling to the idea that someone’s history of malevolent tendencies should be disqualifying. Yet, the political logic is understandable: Georgians love him, so why mess up a good thing? His campaign seems to be betting that Georgia primary voters only care about what a great running back he used to be and how much he loves his God and country. Walker has done the requisite work parroting Trump’s election lies and has his endorsement. So his campaign figures that not much else needs to be done. And they’re proving themselves right; the poll numbers don’t lie. They know what makes GOP primary voters feel warm and gooey inside. All Walker has to do is stick to the script.
The playbook isn’t hard to read.
Walker’s introductory campaign video, released last August, is titled “Run.” In it, he speaks to the camera with his high-school locker room behind him. We see present-day Walker sprinting on the track, with cuts to his old sports footage. A church flashes on the screen as he mentions his faith in God. Then he’s doing mountain climbers and situps in a weight room. He jumps rope and strengthens his arms and abs. We see a yellowed scrapbook of his news clippings. This is designed to show us that Walker knows how to work hard and that he never quits. Then the tone changes. Walker says: “I’m a conservative because I believe in smaller government, a strong military, personal responsibility, and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. That’s an America worth fighting for.” Then, it’s back to football. An announcer is heard, “Herschel Walker at the 45, he’s gone!” to roaring cheers. Walker then appears back on the football field, with a stadium light over his shoulder: “My name is Herschel Walker, and I’m running for the United States Senate.”
If anyone needed more reminders that Walker is a football idol, his campaign logo is his name underneath a stylized outline of the top, curved half of a football. His campaign slogan is: RUN, FIGHT, WIN.
That isn’t to say Walker avoids policy entirely. You can find some, but you have to dig around and probably go to a MAGA rally to get it. His roughly six-minute speech at a Trump rally in Commerce, Georgia in March encapsulated Walker’s unique blending of the worlds.
The speech went like this: Walker encouraged the crowd to chant his name—“Let me hear Herschel! C’mon! Get it out!”—making it obvious that this is a man accustomed to adoring crowds. Then, after he praised Jesus and described himself as “sick and tired of people putting this country down,” Walker said it was time to “tell everyone this is the best country in the world” and “get ready to fight for it.” His fans chanted “Herschel, Herschel!” Then came the policy talk: As a “man of God,” Walker said he would “get men out of women’s sports,” better fund the military, and support law enforcement. Walker said he was also “sick and tired” of “CTR” being taught in schools (he meant “critical race theory,” which is CRT). “Can you tell me what that means?” Walker asked. “We’re Americans. We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re Americans. We’re all mutts, I hate to tell you that,” and tossed off an odd line about how “23andme screwed us all up.”
His thoughts on energy policy: “They’re giving our energy away to people that don’t like us” and “China and Russia’s not thinking about this Green New Deal.” He suggested that Democratic energy policies were the reason for high gas prices and food-supply chain issues. Referring to Democratic plans to provide student loan forgiveness, Walker said: “Let me tell you when they’re giving money away, they’re giving your money away, because taxpayers are gonna be responsible for it.”
And that’s it for policy. Then it’s back to what his fans really wanted to hear: “I’m not here to be a politician, I’m here to be a warrior because that’s what God has said he brought me here to be,” Walker said, prompting cheers. “He brought me here to be a warrior.”
Then he made his final pitch:
I’m going to tell you I love to win. I say, “Put me in the game, coach. I’m ready to play.” Hey, and if you’ve ever seen me play, I can play. And if you’ve ever seen me fight, I can fight. And let me tell you what: No matter how hard they come, the harder I can fight. Because, I said, “no weapon formed against me shall ever prosper.” I know what that says. And, I tell you what, I’ve had America’s Dream right here in the state of Georgia, I’ve had America’s Dream right here in the United States of America, and I will continue to have that American Dream because I’m going to continue to fight for this country. And from the great words of a great friend of mine, Diamond Dallas Page, “Boom! That’s it baby!”’
A question that ought to make people uncomfortable with their support for Walker: Take away his legendary football career and what exactly do you know about him? And how well is Walker, long accustomed to adoring fans, going to handle having his reputation tested when the Democrats start dedicating millions of dollars to defeating him?
One can, generously, argue that the hard work and drive he has displayed as an athlete might have some applicability to a Senate career, as might his stature as a longstanding community role model and media personality. Fine.
But what else is there? A long string of wild exaggerations about his academic and business success. Ugly stories of his violence. Extreme positions on issues that are likely to make people outside Walker’s hardcore fanbase recoil.
Georgia’s agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, who is running against Walker for the GOP nomination, toured a domestic violence center last fall and told reporters after the visit: “If [Walker] were a member of the United States Senate today and if he had committed the acts that he’s admitted to, he would be removed from office. . . . Yes, I do believe those activities, that behavior, is disqualifying.”
Last week, in a GOP primary debate that Walker didn’t bother to attend, Black drove his point further, saying Walker is unelectable because of his history of “domestic violence, stalking women, threatened shootouts with police, business deals that have gone sour.”
Walker’s absence from the debate stage meant that he was not among the candidates asked to address the leak of the Supreme Court draft ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, sure to be a significant factor in the general election. On the stump, Walker has said he would “protect the unborn with my life . . . because I believe from the womb to the tomb.” In his responses to a survey questionnaire from the Georgia Life Alliance, Walker indicated he supported a total ban on all abortion, without exceptions for rape, incest, or saving the mother’s life.
“I am 100% pro-life. As Georgia’s next senator, I will vote for any legislation which protects the sanctity of human life, even if the legislation is not perfect,” he wrote on the questionnaire. “Every human life is valuable and absolutely worth saving.”
If, as expected, the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Georgia’s 2019 abortion law—which prohibits abortions once a fetal heartbeat is present and is currently being contested in the courts—is likely to be upheld. That law allows abortion beyond the point of a fetal heartbeat (around six weeks) only in cases of rape, incest, saving the mother’s life, or the “medical futility” of the baby. Abortions in cases of rape or incest would require the woman to file a police report. The law also includes language to provide unborn children “personhood” status for the purpose of claiming child support and tax dependency status.
Many Georgia voters likely have questions about that law and its consequences. Walker isn’t taking them now.
Beyond what little he says in ads, on the stump, and before friendly audiences, Walker doesn’t feel the need to get into any more details. That’s not entirely unheard of in politics: Candidates skip debates when there’s no upside to them and regularly substitute slogans for substance—and well, celebrities gonna celebrity. Maybe Walker will more seriously address policy issues down the road. After all, he is getting help from his friends. Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Joni Ernst are among those listed as willing to help Walker bone up on policy ahead of the general election.
For now, though, what’s striking about Walker’s candidacy is how little Georgia’s GOP primary voters seem to care about how hard Walker is leaning on his football legacy and taking a knee on the actual substance of being a United States senator. His vibes are enough. If former Auburn coach-turned-Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville can ride his SEC stardom to the Senate, why not Walker?
Unlike Tuberville, Walker has that special something that really could put him over the edge in a competitive race in a purple state. He makes Republican voters feel good. He puts a smile on their faces. All the conquering hometown hero has to do is promise that as a God-blessed United States senator, he’ll be their culture warrior, eager to stick it to the “CTR”-obsessed leftists and make Georgia proud once again. Boom! That’s it, baby!
The primary is on May 24. Come back and check the scoreboard then—when the real matchup begins.