GOP crisis in Herschel Walker race was nearly two years in the making

GOP crisis in Herschel Walker race was nearly two years in the making


In early 2021, as football star Herschel Walker considered running for Senate, he approached some of Georgia’s top Republican operatives about advising his campaign. The operatives were warned about political vulnerabilities in Walker’s past — including allegations of violence against women — that were openly discussed in the state’s political circles, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Walker’s reaction to being confronted with the allegations was also troubling, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. When the consultants would ask the candidate about even incidents in the public record, he would often get simultaneously defensive and aggressive, accusing the questioner of being a Democratic plant or ally of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader.

Those consultants passed on working with Walker, but he pressed ahead with his campaign. After all, Walker’s overwhelming name recognition in Georgia as a Heisman Trophy-winning football star and backing from former president Donald Trump instantly made him so formidable that state and national Republican leaders didn’t mount a serious challenge in the primary, despite concerns about Walker’s baggage.

Now, less than five weeks before the midterm elections, they’re stuck with him as those liabilities threaten to dominate the news and derail his campaign in a state widely viewed as a must-win for Republicans to retake the Senate.

On Monday, the Daily Beast reported that Walker paid for an abortion in 2009, citing documentation including a receipt, a check image and a get-well card. The Washington Post has not independently verified the allegations. As a candidate, Walker has supported an absolute ban on abortions, with no exception for rape, incest or the health of the mother. Walker’s campaign initially denied the report and promised to sue the next day, but no lawsuit has been filed.

National GOP rallies behind Walker. But in Georgia, Republicans worry.

“They keep telling me things like that, and it’s totally, totally untrue,” Walker said in an interview on Thursday with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Walker added: “If that had happened, I would have said there’s nothing to be ashamed of there. People have done that — but I know nothing about it.”

For now, Republicans are publicly rallying around Walker as his campaign said online donations have skyrocketed. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the well-resourced Senate Leadership Fund — a super PAC aligned with McConnell that has committed more than $39 million to back Walker — said they would keep supporting him on the airwaves. And Trump, who urged Walker to run in the first place, said he believes Walker’s denials and is widely expected to hold a rally for him, though a close adviser said plans haven’t been finalized.

“This guy is a better-than-even shot to win,” said Curt Anderson, a top strategist for the NRSC. “Herschel Walker has been called everything. Every name in the book. This is not a change in the race.”

More quietly, though, Republican strategists are taking a couple weeks to measure and evaluate the fallout. The impact could take several weeks to register in opinion surveys. Walker was already trailing incumbent Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) in most public polls.

“Even the most staunch Republicans are rattled,” Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) said Wednesday night on CNN. “Every Republican knew that there was baggage out there, but the weight of that baggage is starting to feel a little closer to unbearable at this point.”

This account of Walker’s candidacy is based on interviews with 19 people involved at various times with the Walker campaign, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal matters. The Walker campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions.

The buzz about Walker running for office in Georgia began even before the current Senate race was open. During the runoff campaigns for Georgia’s two Senate seats leading up to Jan. 5, 2021, Republican operatives were already discussing that if incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue lost, Walker could challenge Warnock in 2022.

Walker had been a repeat guest in the Trump White House as a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, and he spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention to vouch for Trump’s character. He also became a regular presence on Fox News as a contributor.

Republican operatives discussed Walker’s potential weaknesses, including his struggles with mental health, which Walker had acknowledged in a book, and a rumored abortion, according to Liz Mair, a GOP opposition researcher working on the runoffs. Mair said she warned others that the abortion rumor would plague Walker as a candidate, but people thought they could keep it hidden.

“Across the board, Republicans in the state knew about it and decided they didn’t care,” Mair said. “I don’t know if it was a moment of collective insanity when a bunch of people all said, ‘Seems like a genius plan.’ ”

In March 2021, Trump went public with an official statement urging Walker to run. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Trump said. “He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL. He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!”

Walker’s football stardom made him a living legend in Georgia and overwhelmingly popular with Republican primary voters.

“He comes in with 100 percent name ID, which you just don’t have, and high goodwill,” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for former Georgia governor Nathan Deal (R) and a political commentator in the state. “He was my first ever hero. I have not lived in a home where there was not some imagery of Herschel displayed. He was like the pope for us.”

Despite those advantages, Walker had trouble from the start attracting top political talent. Early on, he and his wife reached out to Nick Ayers, a former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, who was not taking clients at the time. Walker talked to Austin Chambers, a former aide to Perdue and former president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, and Paul Bennecke, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, but they didn’t come to an agreement.

The campaign started working with Scott Farmer, who has advised Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and Heath Garrett, an adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the late Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), then brought in a local team led by campaign manager Scott Paradise. A few months ago, amid widespread concerns that Republican Senate candidates were falling behind, Walker’s campaign brought on communications consultant Gail Gitcho and Timmy Teepell, a partner at Anderson’s firm, OnMessage Inc.

Before he announced, Walker was made aware by other Republicans about much of the opposition research that was likely to confront him, including the mental health struggles he described in his book and the domestic violence allegations. A person familiar with the vetting process said the alleged abortion reported this week did not surface in the early research, and it is not clear whether Walker was directly asked about the rumor.

His family was involved in the early discussions, including his son Christian, who had at one point discussed taking a significant role in the campaign, and his current wife, Julie Blanchard. A Republican involved verified the recent claim by Walker’s son Christian that family members warned him against running. Christian Walker was treated as a constructive adviser early in the process and ultimately decided not to take a role in the campaign. Blanchard also initially resisted a run, though she came around as the candidate showed enthusiasm. Christian Walker did not respond to requests for comment.

Some advisers to McConnell were initially interested in an alternative to Walker, with particular concern about Walker’s documented record of domestic abuse allegations. In the summer of 2021, Republicans made efforts to warn Walker not to mount a campaign before the Associated Press published a report that he had threatened to kill his ex-wife and alarmed associates. McConnell adviser Josh Holmes publicly shared the Associated Press story on Twitter at the time, commenting, “This is about as comprehensive a takedown as I’ve ever read. My lord.”

But challenging Walker in the primary — taking on a folk hero with Trump’s backing — looked futile. The state’s Republican governor, Kemp, stayed out of the Senate race. Kemp was already standing up to the former president in his own reelection, after crossing Trump by certifying Joe Biden’s win in the state.

Analysis: Herschel Walker and the GOP’s declining demand for morality in leaders

Walker coasted to the nomination with 68 percent of the vote, overcoming attacks from the distant runner-up, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who said Walker’s history of violence was disqualifying.

“Nobody really saw him as beatable,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican consultant who grew up in Georgia. “If he was beatable, there are plenty of people who would love to be United States senators in the state of Georgia. But they all knew that he had the name ID, the general popularity among conservatives, and of course the Trump backing that made it an enormous hill to climb.”

The campaign has struggled to respond to reports since the primary about Walker’s unacknowledged children and, finally, the alleged abortion. Walker was not initially forthcoming with his own advisers about at least some of the out-of-wedlock children, and NRSC staff members did not know about them until they were publicly reported.

After the Daily Beast story about the abortion, Republican operatives discussed the wisdom of sticking with Walker, given the other possible paths to a majority and the concern that more scandals will emerge in the coming weeks. One of the worries is that the public focus on Walker could contaminate other races by distracting from the issues that Republicans want to be talking about in these final weeks.

“Look, this October surprise took place on the first business day of October. What comes next?” said one Republican involved in the Senate races.

The setback came just as Walker’s attacks were showing some success in wearing down Warnock’s favorability ratings. Now local media coverage has turned against Walker and he doesn’t have the money to offset that with his own ads, one Republican in Georgia said.

The campaign has been focused on trying to discredit the Daily Beast’s reporting and finding the sources of the damaging stories rather than dealing with the fallout, a person familiar with the matter said. The campaign team is growing especially impatient with Christian Walker, whose social media posts turning against his father blasted to his huge following are considered more damaging than the news articles themselves. But the campaign has been hamstrung, the person said, because Walker won’t criticize his son.

The person said the campaign is looking for ways to change the subject and land more attacks on Warnock.

Republicans are hoping that the latest revelations won’t fundamentally change the dynamics in the race, since voters were already aware of Walker’s self-described struggles with mental health, as well as unsavory moments from his past.

“I’m going to vote Herschel Walker,” said one Georgia-based Republican consultant. “I don’t care if he performed an abortion himself — I am going to vote for him.”

But Walker was already underperforming Kemp in polls and was at risk of losing educated, suburban, moderate Republicans and independents.

“Every dribble of new stuff between now and the election I think increases the pool who say, ‘Screw this, let’s vote for Brian Kemp and let’s not do the other race at all.’ Those people exist in Georgia,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host based in Georgia. “Everybody is, ‘Are you surprised? Do you believe him? Do you not believe him?’ Does it even matter?”

Walker now stands out in a class of Republican Senate nominees that even McConnell has acknowledged present challenges to the party’s hopes of winning the upper chamber. The bombshell reports also recall past instances of candidates’ flaws upending races, such as Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark that cost Republicans a Missouri Senate seat in 2012, and Trump’s recorded bragging about sexual assault reported by The Post in October 2016.

“I would say this is the Access Hollywood tape all over again, and the only slight difference is Warnock is not as unpopular as Hillary [Clinton] was, so the idea that this race is over because of this is pretty crazy,” a senior Republican official said. “The key part of that is Trump still won.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.


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Jorge Oliveira