Herschel Walker begins Georgia GOP Senate bid amid unknowns

FILE – In this May 29, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump, left, and his daughter Ivanka Trump, right, watch as former football player Herschel Walker, center, throws a football during White House Sports and Fitness Day on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. Walker registered to vote on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Georgia as Donald Trump has been urging the former football great to join the U.S. Senate in the state as a Republican. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

ATLANTA — Herschel Walker said he “can’t sit on the sidelines anymore” as he joined the Republican U.S. Senate race in Georgia. He’s running with some definite advantages — including his football fame and the support of former President Donald Trump — but also with a lot of unknowns in his effort to beat Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock in 2022.

“America is the greatest country in the world, but too many politicians in Washington are afraid to say that,” Walker said in his first statement as a Senate candidate after filing to run last week. “Where else could a poor kid from a small town in Georgia become valedictorian of his high school, earn the Heisman Trophy, play professional football, represent the United States in the Olympics, and become CEO of multiple companies? I have lived the American Dream, but I am concerned it is slipping away for many people.”

Walker faces some key questions: Will the first-time candidate prove to be a good politician and fundraiser? What will voters make of his sometimes troubled personal history? Can Walker lure back once-Republican moderates who have fallen away from the party, and peel off some traditionally Democratic African Americans?

Those hurdles could be harder to leap than the defenders the 59-year-old Walker overcame on his way to a Heisman Trophy as a University of Georgia running back in 1982.

“Herschel found it easy to run over linemen and defensive backs in the NFL,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. “He’s getting into a new game and may not have a lot of blockers out in front. I think he’s going to find this is going to be a lot harder.”

If Walker emerges from the Republican primary, the Senate contest would feature two black men vying for a seat in the heart of the Deep South. First, though, Walker has to get past Republicans already running, including state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, former banking executive and Navy veteran Latham Saddler and contractor Kelvin King.

One other potential opponent, Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, bowed out of a potential candidacy by endorsing Walker.

Walker dubbed his campaign committee Team Herschel in declaring his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. His foremost teammate may be Trump. Their relationship dates to the 1980s, when Walker played for a Trump-owned team in the short-lived United States Football League. Walker, who went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL, spoke in support of Trump at the 2020 Republican National Convention and later attended Trump’s private birthday celebration.

Trump publicly encouraged Walker to enter the primary, telling a radio show in June that “he’s a great guy, he’s a patriot and he’s a very loyal person, he’s a very strong person. They love him in Georgia, I tell you.”

With Trump the “defining figure” in today’s GOP, Bullock said, the former president’s backing might be all Walker needs.

“If he tells them they need to go out and vote for Herschel Walker, that’s the strongest endorsement he can possibly get,” Bullock said.

But Trump’s support could be a liability in a general election in closely divided Georgia.

Walker could share a Republican ticket with Gov. Brian Kemp, a frequent target of Trump attacks, as Kemp seeks reelection. Trump has vowed vengeance against Kemp, saying he didn’t do enough to investigate the state’s 2020 general election. It’s unclear if that enmity would damage Republican chances, with Democrats possibly fielding a united ticket of Warnock and Stacey Abrams. Walker endorsed Kemp, a fervent Georgia football fan, in Kemp’s 2018 victory over Abrams.

Warnock has already raised $10.5 million for the 2022 race but has downplayed Walker’s entry.

“And I hear there’s a race next year,” Warnock told the Atlanta Press Club last week when asked about Walker.

Black has tweaked Walker for his long absence from Georgia, and did so again Tuesday in a video “welcoming” Walker to the race and challenging him to come to a Republican fish fry Saturday south of Macon.

“I suppose I’ve always wanted an autograph,” Black said, holding up a weathered football. “But there are some things that are far more important now: the future of our country, the future of our families.”

Sadler said in a statement that he’s a better choice as a “next generation conservative leader who can beat Raphael Warnock.”

“This campaign isn’t about the glories of yesterday; it’s about our nation’s future,” Sadler said.