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Can Herschel Walker Survive the Implosion of His Heroic Image?

It may be all too much for Trump’s friend Herschel Walker. Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

To fully understand the crisis that has overtaken Herschel Walker’s U.S. Senate campaign in the last day you have to comprehend the heroic image he had in Georgia heading into this first run for office. The man universally known in his native state simply as “Herschel” was more than an iconic athlete who won the Heisman Trophy and carried the University of Georgia Bulldogs to their first (and until last year their only) national championship. In a sport and in an era full of preening, self-celebrating peacocks, Walker was quietly stolid, even humble; self-sacrificing (he played most of the 1981 game that won the championship with a shoulder separation, and once rescued the victim of a car accident while out for his morning run); and personally conservative (in college he often expressed the desire to become an FBI agent). In addition, not to be too delicate about it, he was a reassuring figure in the early 1980s to the many white conservatives who cheered his gridiron exploits and thought of him as a “credit to his race,” as the racist phrase goes.

In that respect – and as a long-time friend to his first real boss, Donald Trump – Walker was the perfect Republican candidate to take on Georgia’s first Black senator, Raphael Warnock. Even his self-documented dark side, the mental illness he revealed in a 2008 book, fit nicely into a familiar southern Christian narrative of brokenness and redemption. But the 2022 Senate campaign has turned into a long-fuse implosion of Herschel Walker’s heroic image. At first the reports of violent behavior towards his ex-wife and other women could be consigned to his mental illness, which he said he’d overcome. But it soon became apparent that the business success he claimed was largely imaginary, like the law enforcement background he touted, the university degree he never actually earned, and the family-man image that seems to have disguised a lone wolf existence. Even as he brushed aside primary opponents who warned he was a political time bomb, and avoided debates and interviewers, the suspicion that Walker’s self-presentation concealed a complicated man with a closet full of skeletons continued to grow, even in Republican circles. Still, in a good year for Georgia Republicans and with equally strong backing from both Trump and the former president’s Republican enemies, Walker was rated even money to win. Until this week.

The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger, who earlier revealed that Walker has publicly unacknowledged children he fathered out of wedlock, has now hit the stolidly anti-abortion candidate with a true bombshell: an anonymous claim by an alleged girlfriend that in 2009 Walker encouraged her to have, and indeed paid for her to have, an abortion after getting her pregnant. The sourcing of the story is thin, but Sollenberger says the woman provided materials to back up her story, which was also corroborated by an (also anonymous) friend:

She supported these claims with a $575 receipt from the abortion clinic, a “get well” card from Walker, and a bank deposit receipt that included an image of a signed $700 personal check from Walker.

Walker immediately denied the claim, threatened to sue the Daily Beast for defamation, and blamed the whole incident on his Democrat enemies. But the potential coup de grace came from a source he cannot so easily dismiss: his (fully acknowledged) son Christian.

To younger Americans, 23-year-old Christian Walker is likely more famous than his father. He’s a Generation Z social media phenomenon whose own-the-libs stylings as a “Gays for Trump” conservative and Ron DeSantis fan have made him an online influencer, with hundreds of thousands of followers. His right-wing street cred has given his sudden explosion of fury at his father after the abortion story came out a lot of play. It began with this tweet:

And it has continued with (so far) two videos in which Walker repeatedly said of his father’s campaign and the image he has sought to salvage: “Everything has been a lie.”

In an outpouring of anger that may yet continue in the coming days, Christian Walker describes his father’s campaign image as a complete fraud, and taunts conservatives for going along with it:

“Family values” people? He has four kids, with four different women, and wasn’t in the house raising any of them. He was out having sex with other women.

Walker has quietly responded by simply tweeting: “I LOVE my son no matter what.” He is not, after all, likely to sue Christian Walker for defamation.

Regardless of whether the abortion claims take flight or collapse, Christian Walker is reinforcing the suspicions Herschel Walker’s political opponents have been raising all along. And it’s not clear the candidate can recover, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein observes:

Just weeks before the midterm election, the shocking developments have some GOP figures despondent about Walker’s chances of defeating Warnock in a November race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson said the fallout is “probably a KO” for Walker’s midterm chances. Nicole Rodden, a former Republican House contender, blamed party leaders for backing a candidate who has “cost the GOP the US Senate for a second time.”

This last comment is an allusion to the dual Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs in early 2021 in which Warnock and Jon Ossoff flipped two seats and gave Democrats control of the chamber. For Georgia Republicans, the nightmare could be recurring.

But so far the GOP’s major voices are standing by their endangered candidate:

How Walker weathers the next few days will be more than a little interesting. But if his candidacy doesn’t collapse, the latest incidents will add even more drama to the October 14 debate in Savannah that will be the sole direct confrontation between Walker and Warnock. Up until now, the main mystery was whether the often tongue-tied Walker could hold his own in a debate with the polished incumbent and long-time Sunday preacher. Now viewers may tune in to see whether Walker can somehow rebuild his image as “Herschel,” Georgia’s unassailable hero.

Barring that, Walker’s candidacy may provide the iron test of whether in an era of polarization in which Donald Trump seems to have obliterated any notion of personal misconduct and mendacity as a bar to high office, his Georgia protege can win despite it all.

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Can Herschel Walker Survive the Implosion of His Image?