Republicans loved seeing Herschel Walker score touchdown after touchdown. They doubt he can carry them to the Senate majority.
Walker is a former NFL star and Donald Trump’s favorite to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate race next fall. But as years-old allegations about Walker’s marriage and business dealings weigh on his potential bid, Senate Republicans are raising concerns about his past in a state widely viewed as their best pickup opportunity next year.
“Some of it’s pretty bad, obviously: physical abuse and pulling a gun on his wife, if that’s true,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who is close to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I want to win that race. And to the extent that he’s handicapped by some of these things that would make that unlikely, I’d prefer to have somebody else.”
Walker’s potential candidacy offers another test case for the former president’s influence over the GOP, as Trump tries to play kingmaker in Senate races that will determine whether Republicans can win back the majority. Trump has already backed Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina and Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama in open primaries, breaking with the endorsements of the Senate Republicans vacating those seats.
But Walker has hesitated to enter the Georgia race despite Trump’s entreaties, and with good reason. Should Walker proceed to run, he is all but guaranteed to face questions about his personal and financial decisions. While the former football star has been open about his struggles with dissociative identity disorder, recent news reports, including a lengthy AP examination, have resurfaced past allegations from his ex-wife that he threatened to kill her. In addition, his claims about his business success are also coming under scrutiny.
As Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) put it: “He’s got the wow factor, the celebrity factor … But some of these issues he’s going to have to figure out how to answer.”
“As a candidate you have to be able to respond to hard questions. And your background becomes an issue, your experience becomes an issue,” Thune said. “Sometimes people who have success in one area of life and translate it to politics, it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Walker did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But earlier this week, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he will make his decision on his own timeline. And he dismissed the recent news reports, saying “little articles like that ain’t going to scare me.”
Thune said he has a personal relationship with Walker but has not discussed the Senate race with him. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, is encouraging the former running back to go for the Senate seat, describing the reports as “bulls—.”
“He represents Georgia better than Warnock, he’s conservative with people’s money, he’s fiscally and socially conservative,” Graham said. “He’s been successful, he’s struggled, he’s a real person.”
Senate Republicans are hoping to avoid a repeat of their twin losses earlier this year in Georgia, which handed Democrats the majority. The GOP incumbents at the time, former Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both faced controversies over their stock trades. Trump’s false claims of winning the 2020 election and Republicans’ dismissal of bipartisan cries for more stimulus checks did not make things any easier for the GOP in what is now a critical swing state.
Republicans need a net gain of one seat to take back the Senate in 2022. But they face a tough map that could lead to losses elsewhere, making Georgia exceptionally important.
McConnell — who maintains close ties to several well-heeled outside groups that often influence Senate races — earlier this year said that he is focused on candidates who can win, regardless of the former president’s endorsement. And at the moment, it’s not clear how much influence Trump will actually have on the midterm elections, given that his name won’t be on the ballot. Susan Wright’s loss this week in a House special election in Texas, despite Trump’s backing, is seen by some Republicans as potential evidence of his waning influence in the party .
“Trump’s not doing so well,” said one Senate Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some clout. But he’s not God … McConnell thinks that there are a lot of people out there that fundamentally don’t want the president just choosing this person.”
Meanwhile, the Senate GOP campaign arm is declining to get involved in open primaries. When asked about Walker, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) reiterated that he will “support whoever wins the nomination.”
So far, the Georgia Senate race has three GOP candidates: Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner; Kelvin King, an Air Force veteran; and Latham Saddler, another military veteran who worked in the Trump White House. But others could jump in. Both Loeffler and Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) are considering runs, though Carter has said he won’t do it if Walker declares his candidacy.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said that he’d like to see his former colleague Perdue run for the Senate again; Perdue has declined entreaties to enter the race but also met with McConnell last week. Cramer did not weigh in on whether Walker should run, but said that the potential candidate is already getting an early dose of how tough his Senate campaign would be.
“Obviously on the surface, you’re starting to have to explain something that’s difficult and not necessarily favorable,” Cramer said. “But he’s running against somebody who is amassing a voting record as well, and Sen. Warnock will have to explain that to voters.”
While Walker seems to be in no rush to announce a decision, some senators are taking that as a sign that the possible recruit is having second thoughts. And they’re warning him to be ready for an onslaught, if he does decide to take on Warnock.
“Don’t do it if you don’t want to do it, if you don’t have it in your belly, if you’re not prepared to take the spears and the arrows,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “Because I’ve been in this business for a while. And it takes a big heart, a lot of wind and thick skin. My observation … he seems to be having a hard time making up his mind.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.
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