Why Did It Take the GOP So Long to Panic About Herschel Walker?

Less than two months ago, State Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black was trailing former football star Herschel Walker in the Republican Senate primary when he told a rally in Putnam County that he didn't think there was any chance Walker could beat incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock in the fall. "Folks," said Black, "he can't win in November. The baggage is too heavy. It'll never happen."

Black was referring to Walker's controversial past, which includes allegations of domestic abuse — his ex-wife obtained a restraining order against him in 2005, claiming "violent and controlling behavior" — as well as threatening behavior towards former friends and business partners. At that point in the race Black and the other candidates running against Walker hadn't yet introduced any negative advertising targeting the Trump-backed candidate, who by then had surged to a massive lead in the polls.

That began to change in early April, when two Super PACs affiliated with opposing campaigns went negative with some television spots. But the last-ditch effort appears to have been too little too late. Walker did not participate in Republican debates, and the only times he faced questioning were in softball interviews with Fox News and Newsmax, leaving him largely unchecked until late in the race. His celebrity and Donald Trump's endorsement propelled him forward. A Fox News poll taken between May 12-16 showed Walker with a 58-point lead, more than enough to make him the victor in this Tuesday's primary without having to go to a runoff.

The question is, why did the other GOP candidates take such a gloves-off approach toward Walker when they are convinced Warnock — one of the best-funded Senate Democrats this cycle — will do the opposite? As Black said, "the Democrats will pour $140 million on top of domestic violence and altercations with the police, make no mistake." The answer "is complicated," said one National Republican Senatorial Committee source not authorized to speak on the record.

Donald Trump and Herschel Walker
Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker, right, speaks at a rally with former President Donald Trump on September 25, 2021 in Perry, Georgia. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Part of the reluctance is that Walker's troubled past is central to what his friends and political allies call his "transformation story." Walker doesn't deny the allegations about his past. Some, after all, are a matter of public record. He also brought some of them to the public's attention himself, in a 2008 book entitled "Breaking Free: my life with Dissociative Identity Disorder." In the book he discussed his history of mental illness, dealing with multiple personalities that he developed as a coping mechanism to deal with the teasing and bullying he endured as a young child with a stutter. The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes the disorder as "alternating between multiple identities, leaving a person with gaps in memory of everyday events." It notes men with the disorder "can occasionally exhibit more violent behavior rather than amnesia."

According to public records, there have been no instances of violent behavior involving Walker for more than a decade. And that, to a significant extent, is why his political opponents in the GOP have been wary of going after him directly about the allegations of domestic abuse and other violent behavior. According to a source familiar with opposition research done for the Georgia First political action committee — which supports another Walker opponent, former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler — "the debate the PAC had about using the material was intense. There's troubling stuff there, sure, but Walker and his allies could say it's old news, a political hit job that disregards Walker's 'transformation' narrative."

The publicly available information about Walker's past was well-known to GOP operatives as the Walker campaign geared up last year. But that didn't stop many national Republican leaders from backing Walker, particularly after Trump endorsed him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose relationship with Trump is frosty at best, endorsed Walker last October.

That endorsement angered the Black campaign, which the following month met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee in an effort to persuade them that Walker was deeply vulnerable, an adviser to Black told Newsweek. It even put together a video outlining some of Walker's troubled history. An NRSC official said the meeting was designed to hear about the Black campaign's plan for running against Warnock in the fall, "not to air attack ads against fellow Republicans."

That attitude frustrates Walker's opponents, who insist their own polling suggests how damaging the negative information about Walker will be. Internal polling done for Black's campaign, according to a memo originally reported by Politico, showed a significant decrease in support for Walker once voters were made aware of the allegations against him, as well as his support for a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Herschel Walker at Perry Rally
Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks at a rally featuring former US President Donald Trump on September 25, 2021 in Perry, Georgia. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

But once Trump and much of the GOP establishment got behind Walker, little the opposition has said or done in the final stretch of the primary race has gained any traction.. In 2021 Walker raised more than $9 million, far more than any of the five other GOP candidates in the Senate race. Walker's 'transformation' story, Trump's endorsement and his legendary career as a tailback for the University of Georgia — he won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 — have firmly rooted him in the lead, according to the polls heading into the May 24 primary.

But whether Walker's popularity with Republican primary voters will be enough in November, to flip a seat the GOP is counting on to regain control of the Senate, will be decided by a larger electorate who less than a year and a half ago ousted two Republican incumbent senators in favor of Democratic challengers. .

The Republican establishment has made its bet: that enough of Georgia's voters have come to terms with Walker's past and embraced his story, warts and all. Warnock and the Democratic Super PACs backing his campaign will test that proposition in the fall.