Herschel Walker’s Win Complicates GOP’s Election Strategy

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ATLANTA—Doug Hollandsworth counts himself among Herschel Walker’s biggest fans, but isn’t shy about saying the admiration stems from his football talents, not his political ambitions.

“I hope Herschel doesn’t win,” the 64-year-old consultant from Monroe said Tuesday night, just moments before The Associated Press called Georgia’s Republican primary for Senate in Walker’s favor. “If he gets there, Democrats in November are going to shoot him down. In football, go, Herschel, go. In politics, I’ll vote for him if that’s all we’ve got.”

He isn’t alone in that worry about how Walker will fare. National Republicans worry for weeks over the outcome of this Senate primaries, and yet they seem powerless to offer a solution. Gary Black (state agriculture commissioner) seemed to be unable crack the double-digits of most polling. Despite Black’s constant hammering that Walker cannot win in November—“The baggage is too heavy; it’ll never happen.”—Walker seemed on a safe path to clearing 50% and avoiding a runoff by more than a mere field goal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintained his support for Walker, knowing that he stands to benefit the most from a retake of the Senate.

The combination of Walker’s celebrity, his Heisman Trophy from 1982, and ex-President Donald Trump’s endorsement seemed impossible to derail. But, talking to Republicans in Georgia, it was clear that Walker felt invincible and tied to Trump.

“I’m not a fan of Trump. I wish he hadn’t inserted himself in any of these races,” says Susan Bogardus, a 56-year-old commercial lender from Athens. “But we don’t always get what we want.”

Walker, a political novice fighting in one the most watched Senate races in America is not the only reason to worry. Walker is open and honest about being diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder). This mental illness causes behavior changes. A former wife claimed that Walker once pointed a gun at her head and had violent tendencies. In recent days, local news was dominated by reports of irregularities in Walker’s business dealings and his misleading assertions about charitable work that he actually performed as a paid celebrity endorser.

Walker was also present at the rally held near Georgia’s University of Georgia Monday. acknowledged his campaign would rather have him talking about anything other than his total opposition to abortion rights—and then repeated his desire to ban all abortions, a position that puts him wildly out of the mainstream for most voters as the country waits to see if the Supreme Court will effectively end federal abortion rights as defined by Roe v. Wade.

Walker’s next few months could prove to be problematic, would not be fair. His campaign dismisses the questions as a political hit job, much the way Trump weathered a litany of political and legal troubles as “fake news.” Walker refused to debate his primary opponents and has dodged questions about alleged domestic violence, stalking, and threats against women dating back more than a decade. The brush off works but it is only to a certain extent, particularly when Democrats are ready to defend their surprise victory in early 2021. Raphael Warnock made an upset.

Walker starts his general-election campaign with another disadvantage, although it’s not expected to be persistent. His last filing showed that he had $7 million to spend on his campaign accounts. Warnock, however, reported nearly $23 million.

The cost of a nationalized party with celebrities candidates quickly adds up. Already, $15 million in outside money has been spent, plus the $12 million from the candidates’ accounts. The national spotlight may sometimes lead to a loss of color by November. Just ask celebrity Democrats like Beto O’Rourke and Amy McGrath, whose national profiles didn’t translate to local victories despite Democrats shipping cash by the crate to their Senate bids.

Walker might have an advantage in the local market that extends beyond politics. “Herschel is going to take it. It’s not because he’s a better man or better politician,” says Eric Oliver, a 66-year-old actor from Dunwoody. “He’s an African-American football player in this state. Many people will choose to support a football player rather than a preacher. In this state, football is everything.”

He then adds the all-important caveat: “Unless he steps in it.”

The Senate currently stands at a 50-50 tie, meaning every even-marginally-competitive seat will get heaps of national attention, money, and advice. Georgia is one of Republicans’ few pick-up opportunities, which they must pursue while defending potentially expensive seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. McConnell must win in Georgia if he wants to be reclaimed the title Majority Leader.

There have already been some missteps. In Ohio, Trump-convert J.D. Vance, a Republican senatorial nominee with an unprecedented record of support for weaponization by Democrats, won. In Pennsylvania, the count continues with a close race between Mehmet Oz (celebrity doctor) and David McCormick (hedge-funder). Missouri Republicans may end up nominating a disgraced ex-Gov. Eric Greitens, who was disgraced in a sex-related scandal, will be running for the seat of retiring Senator Roy Blunt. New Hampshire, Arizona, and Colorado could all end up with candidates that are easily viewed as fringe characters.

These developments may end up threatening Republicans, and giving Democrats an ever-growing majority.

There’s plenty of risk to the broader Republican tickets as well. While a fringe candidate may be detrimental to turnout, a well-criticized candidate could boost Democratic interest on the ballot. Republicans have to be concerned about the women vote. Women in Atlanta may feel frustrated by the GOP’s nomination of a candidate who has been accused of domestic abuse. They might also support Stacey Abrams (who is trying to unseat the Republican governor). Brian Kemp, who coasted to re-nomination on Tuesday despite Trump’s efforts to oust him.

But in a sign of why Walker may not be ready for political primetime, Kemp’s team was able to book the College Football Hall of Fame for Tuesday night as the returns came in. Walker would love the building located right next to Centennial Olympic Park. Walker was instead at the hotel around the corner.

McConnell for his part is open in how he worries about the selection of less-than-ideal candidates amid an environment which should favor his return. “Which leads you to ask the question, ‘How could you screw this up?’ It’s actually possible, and we’ve had some experience with that in the past,” McConnell said last month.

If Republicans can’t stage a rebrand—and fast—in Georgia, they could wind up with déjà vu in November—contending with another candidate in a winnable race who fell short. This time, the problem won’t have been a candidate struggling with the wrong message or bad headwinds. Instead, it will be because their voters couldn’t look beyond celebrity and its ultimate avatar, Trump.

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