the system

Herschel Walker Is the Last Republican Standing

His runoff campaign goes all in on Trumpism.

Illustration: Adam Maida; Photos: Getty Images
Illustration: Adam Maida; Photos: Getty Images

On a recent Sunday in November, Herschel Walker traveled to Carrollton, a farming town in western Georgia, and delivered a screed about gender. “They don’t know the definition of a woman,” the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate said. “They trying to tell you a man could get pregnant.” He blamed his opponent, incumbent Raphael Warnock, for “bringing pronouns into our military” and proclaimed that “men shouldn’t be in women’s sports.” The next day, he released an ad featuring a trans swimmer whom Walker referred to as a “biological male.” Warnock is “afraid to stand up for female athletes,” Walker claimed.

Walker’s transphobia has become the norm for the GOP, but his remarks were all the more striking coming a day after a gunman shot and killed five people at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs. They were a vicious punctuation to the attack, evidence that there are no cease-fires in Walker’s culture war. They also defy prudence and polling, which shows that most voters aren’t nearly as worried about people’s gender identification as he is.

The last time he asked Georgians to vote for him, in the November 8 midterm election, there were enough distractions to camouflage his fixations. Now he’s in the only Senate race in the entire country headed for a December 6 runoff. He’s basically the main event, the last Republican standing, embodying the ugliness of the party’s midterm strategy and revealing how the party might adapt as Donald Trump seeks to become its standard-bearer again in 2024.

Only this time, there’s no hope that a “red wave” will catapult Republicans into control of Congress. Midterm Democratic victories in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Nevada decided the balance of the upper chamber weeks ago. The spoils of a potential Walker victory are harder to get excited about now — two more years of a 50-50 Senate would just delegate control to Joe Manchin again, so the incentives for voters to overlook Walker’s flaws have diminished. At the same time, holding one of Georgia’s Senate seats will be crucial for Democrats as they face an even tougher electoral landscape in 2024, motivating the party to go all out.

You can sense the changing dynamics of the race in how Warnock’s attacks have evolved. Before November, the senator seemed worried that direct salvos against Walker might alienate conservative voters. “My opponent is not ready to represent the people of Georgia,” Warnock would say cautiously. But as Election Day came and went and it became clear that Democrats would control the Senate even without Warnock’s seat, his indictments became more pointed. “Herschel Walker lies about the basic facts of his life,” Warnock tweeted. “He said he was in law enforcement. He was not. He said he worked for the FBI. He did not.”

Just as the Democrats’ midterm performance has made them bolder, conservatives have become less wary about backing Walker now that there’s less downside for them. Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who declined to stump for the ex–football star when he was slugging through his rematch with Stacey Abrams, campaigned with Walker for the first time two weeks after his victory on November 8. “We cannot rest on our laurels,” Kemp told a crowd in suburban Atlanta. Tom Cotton and Rick Scott have come to Georgia to campaign for him too. “They’re afraid of this man coming into the Senate because he’ll transform the Republican Party,” said Lindsey Graham in a recent call to Hannity, predicting that a Walker win would beget swarms of new Black Republicans.

These developments have caused the race’s rhetoric to sour. Walker has begun accusing Warnock of having a strained relationship with his children. “Why don’t he keep his own kids?” he asked at a campaign stop in Augusta. “Don’t have nobody keep your kids. You keep your kids.” Warnock retorted, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that “there are two men in this campaign. One has been missing in action for his family — and that person is not me,” a reference to the kids Walker rarely sees and even less frequently acknowledges. Aside from deflecting talk of his formerly undisclosed children, Walker has taken to calling Warnock “Scooby-Doo” and affecting that character’s gibberish to mock him — his closest effort yet to saddling his opponent with a Trumpian nickname.

If Walker wins, he could help salvage Trump’s status as a kingmaker, which took a hit this fall. The ex-president’s chosen candidates in winnable Senate races — including Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, and Blake Masters in Arizona — came up short in the midterms (though J. D. Vance prevailed in Ohio). A win for Walker, who became friends with Trump through the United States Football League and then The Apprentice, would be a rare success, but associating with the man who inspired him to run might complicate his need to attract moderates. Trump kicked off his 2024 campaign after the midterms by hobnobbing with proud antisemites Kanye West and Nick Fuentes.

So far, these distasteful dalliances seem to be about as costly for Trump among Republican voters as the last time he vied for the GOP nomination. According to a recent Emerson College poll, primary voters would support Trump by a margin of 55-25 over Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who had a much stronger midterm showing than his Republican peers and is the favorite of the Establishment. Trump’s continued success paired with Walker’s — he is still neck and neck with Warnock, just as he was before November 8 — suggests a durable shift in standards among GOP voters. Walker, like Trump, is a walking scandal, even if he lacks the ex-president’s knack for bending bad press to his advantage. Before the general election, he was dogged by accusations of habitual dishonesty, a history of violence against women, and secretly paying women to get abortions despite his anti-abortion platform. Since then, he has been accused of lying about paying for another ex-girlfriend’s abortion, claiming a home in Texas as his primary residence, and angrily swinging his fists at a former girlfriend after she caught him cheating on her with another woman. These demerits help explain why he ran several points behind Kemp in November. But so far they have not proved to be deal-breakers: The support he received was enough to deny Warnock the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid the December runoff.

Walker is one of the GOP’s obvious weak links, but he is not alone. The Republicans managed the worst midterm performance by an opposition in 20 years by fielding an especially odious set of platforms and candidates. Oz gleefully ridiculed his opponent, John Fetterman, for having had a stroke — and lost badly, performing worse than Trump did in 2020. Blake Masters treated voters to a quietly bone-chilling video of himself firing a silenced Walther PPK in the desert outside Tucson and lost as well. Republican candidates maintained their hard line on abortions amid news that 10-year-olds were seeking the procedures across state lines. Walker insisted on no exceptions for rape or incest shortly before his own hypocrisy came to light.

Then, immediately after queer and trans people were massacred in Colorado, he leaned into the same caustic message. The GOP’s midterm flop was a chance for a postmortem with Walker in a unique position to capitalize as the party’s only candidate to be given a redo. Instead, he has proved allergic to adaptation, sticking to the same tired talking points that already failed to secure him one of his party’s most winnable Senate seats last month. Walker is not just an especially garish example of Republicans’ contempt for most of the electorate but proof they can’t seem to jump their own waterlogged ship.

More on herschel walker

See All
Herschel Walker Is the Last Republican Standing