After considerable hesitation and lots of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation, football legend Herschel Walker officially filed candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission for a campaign to unseat Georgia’s new U.S. senator Raphael Warnock next year. This news came on the heels of reports that Walker had quietly registered to vote in Georgia after decades of living in Texas, where he once starred with the Dallas Cowboys. He has also now posted an announcement video that stresses his Georgia roots and his professed conservatism:
Walker’s decision is exciting news for those Georgia Republicans who aren’t already in a competing prospective candidate’s camp. But it will be particularly gratifying for his longtime friend and former boss Donald J. Trump (he signed Walker to his first professional contract when he owned a USFL franchise in New Jersey). The 45th president actually jumped the gun nearly two months ago in predicting that Walker would join the race.
The new candidate listed his new Georgia residence as a home in Atlanta owned by his wife, who is currently under investigation by Georgia election officials for having voted in Georgia in 2020 while actually living in Texas. That incident could be a problem for her husband given his harsh comments (not to mention those of his Mar-a-Lago sponsor) about alleged voter fraud in the past. And one of the Republican candidates already in the field, Agriculture commissioner Gary Black, has called out Walker for not being familiar with Peach State life today.
In yesterday’s Georgia, Walker was a godlike figure, a native of small-town Wrightsville who in 1981 led the University of Georgia Bulldogs to their only undisputed national championship and then won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player. Known for a modest demeanor that only boosted his sky-high popularity in the state, Herschel, as he is simply and universally known (at least among Georgians over the age of 45), remained a major celebrity long after hanging up his cleats. He burnished his athletic reputation by participating in the 1992 Winter Olympics as a member of the U.S. bobsledding team and even had a successful stint as a mixed-martial-arts fighter well into his 50s (he is now 59).
But in a 2008 memoir disclosing a serious, long-standing mental illness and in subsequent revelations from people close to him, Walker gave fodder to those in Georgia politics who, for various reasons, didn’t want to see him run for public office, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein observes:
The book, “Breaking Free,” … explores his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder, a condition he said he developed to combat the bullying he faced as an overweight child with a speech disorder.
Since then, however, reports have documented the violent threats he leveled in 2005 against his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, which led to a judge granting her a protective order. She has said she felt “there was somebody there that was evil” when he threatened her.
It remains to be seen if this history, along with Walker’s lack of political experience and stances on the issues, will give any traction to primary candidates or if it will become salient in what would be a tough contest against Warnock, who has been busily raising money (he had over $10 million in the bank at the end of June) while Walker mulled a challenge. Aside from Gary Black, two other Republicans are already in the field, and former senator Kelly Loeffler (who lost to Warnock in a January 2021 special-election runoff) could join the fray if Walker stumbles or withdraws.
Very limited polling shows Walker running either just ahead of or just behind Warnock in a general-election matchup. A big question is whether Walker could pull significant Black votes away from Warnock, who occupied the same Atlanta pulpit as Martin Luther King Jr. and is the first Black senator from Georgia.
One thing Walker need not worry about is getting out-Trumped by an opponent, given his relationship with the man himself. But Trump could well cast a baleful shadow over the entire Georgia 2022 midterms, particularly if he recruits a viable challenger to Governor Brian Kemp (as he has already found to take down Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger) in retaliation for the refusal to back his Big Lie about carrying Georgia last year. Whoever wins the Republican nomination for governor will likely face 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in an expensive and intense grudge match. A potential Warnock-Walker race would also draw national attention as a unique contest between two well-known Black candidates in a highly competitive but polarized state, perhaps making Georgia the ultimate 2022 battleground. Herschel Walker is used to running over big and tough opponents. But in this day and age, Georgia Democrats are battle-hardened veterans of some big political games.