Herschel Walker flashed his megawatt smile and shook hands with adoring Georgia Bulldog football fans before the team’s recent home game, and then did what he is most famous for: he ran like hell.
The legendary running back who won the 1982 Heisman Trophy is avoiding public events and questions from the press assiduously, even as he settles in as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for US Senate in Georgia.
On Saturday, Walker gave his first public speech since announcing his campaign at Donald Trump’s rally in Perry, in central Georgia. The address lasted less than 10 minutes, with Walker leaning heavily on platitudes and nods to his biography.
“People always ask me what qualifies me to run for this office,” Walker said. “And you know what qualified me to run, is because I love America, and I’m going to fight for America.”
In conversations with half a dozen Republican operatives, including some associated with his campaign, there’s a consensus on the best public strategy. Walker does best by laying low.
So far, the campaign is placing Walker in tightly controlled events and limiting his interviews to friendly outlets like Fox News. Otherwise, Walker’s schedule keeps him largely behind closed doors, including during his ongoing “listening tour” with business and community groups.
“He’s never run for office before, and once he’s out and about, he’s going to have to start answering questions,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Republican strategist in Atlanta unaligned with any of the Senate candidates. “Perhaps he’s being schooled right now and trained, and so he’s got the celebrity status, and so he should ride that.”
The fear from some Republicans is that Walker is not ready to answer difficult questions about his troubled personal history, including allegations recently uncovered by CNN Investigates and other news outlets that the former football star threatened women with violence beyond what he disclosed in his memoir. When asked then by CNN about new allegations from a Texas woman, Walker’s campaign had declined to respond and a campaign spokeswoman cited Walker’s past struggles with mental health issues.
The same Georgia Republicans say there are concerns Walker is unprepared to speak about the issues as he is too closely aligned with his friend, former President Trump.
The Walker campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The bunker strategy is the brainchild of some of the most experienced advisers in regional GOP politics who have joined Walker’s campaign. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of neighboring South Carolina, has sent over a couple top members of his campaign, including longtime adviser Scott Farmer, to help Walker’s team get off the ground.
Graham and Walker became friends following Walker’s 2020 Republican National Convention speech. They spoke at the beginning of this year and talked about the possibility Walker would run.
“Herschel Walker is the best person to carry the ball for the Republican Party in Georgia,” said Graham in a statement to CNN. “He’s one of the most well rounded people to consider running for office, and he would be a transformative senator.”
But Walker has a difficult problem even the best consultants struggle to address. How do you handle an untested political novice with a volatile personal history in a must-win seat?
Some Republicans say there’s little fear Walker will be able to handle himself well on the campaign trail when the time comes.
“Even though he’s an outsider who has never run for office, a lot of the stuff Walker has done in his life — from running a business to doing sports media interviews and giving speeches — has prepared him for this time,” said one senior GOP strategist.
But others say the only option for Walker right now is to go to ground.
“To the extent the candidate will let you, lock his ass in a closet and raise money,” said one Georgia Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely about the leading Senate candidate. “You can’t hide forever, but you can absolutely limit his exposure.”
Others say there’s no rush to get Walker in front of an audience before he’s ready — but that the GOP primary next May looms.
“There’s plenty of time,” said Tanenblatt. “But how long can Herschel continue to operate without doing many public events or answering questions?”
For now, the campaign is operating under the assumption that Walker’s celebrity in the state of Georgia plus the endorsement from Trump will be enough to carry him through the GOP primary.
His only significant Republican opponents so far are Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner, and Latham Saddler, an unknown former Navy SEAL who has shown some fundraising prowess. Republicans in Georgia say the path for Black or Saddler to the nomination is narrow and requires a significant collapse for Walker.
Candidates can file for the Georgia primary as late as March 2022, which leaves plenty of time for other high-profile Republicans such as former senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to jump into the race if either see an opportunity.
Even so, successfully taking on Walker would require an assist from Washington Republicans that doesn’t seem forthcoming. In a recent interview with Politico, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to soften his behind-the-scenes opposition to Walker’s candidacy.
“I think there’s every indication he’s going to be a good candidate,” McConnell told Politico.
But if the Republican nomination is Walker’s to lose, the general election is another story. The incumbent is Democrat Raphael Warnock, elected in a runoff in January to finish out the term of retired Republican Johnny Isakson. Warnock remains one of the more popular elected officials in Georgia and has kept a relatively low profile in his first nine months in the Senate.
Some have noted that nominating a Black Republican like Walker offers the GOP the best chance to knock off Warnock, who is also Black. But Walker’s association with Trump — the two have been friends for decades and Walker was a prominent surrogate for the then-president in 2020 — has many GOP strategists worried.
“Everybody I talk to in the Republican universe who isn’t being paid by [Walker] is terrified,” said another GOP strategist in Georgia, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations.
That’s largely because Georgia has gone from solid red to purple in recent years. The state voted for Joe Biden after voting for the Republican nominee for six straight presidential elections. Running Walker primarily as a Trump ally against Warnock is a risky wager on an otherwise winnable race for the GOP.
“He can’t just be the candidate endorsed by Donald Trump. People need to know who Herschel Walker is as an individual,” said Tanenblatt.
But at Saturday’s rally in Perry, as Trump began to wrap up his lengthy remarks, he asked Walker to come back onstage one more time. With a few additional words, the former president’s longtime friend made clear he is aligned with Trump.
“I want to be a great leader like him when I get to that Senate seat,” Walker said.