Inside the Herschel Walker campaign fiasco
Back in August during the heat of one of the most important Senate races in the country, Herschel Walker's campaign staffers were preoccupied with a dog.
Why it matters: Walker's scandal-plagued Georgia Senate campaign was as chaotic and troubled behind the scenes as it seemed from the outside, according to conversations with nearly a dozen campaign officials.
- "Alvin the Beagle" was a star of Sen. Raphael Warnock's campaign ads, and Walker and his wife, Julie Blanchard Walker, wanted the world to know that Alvin wasn't Warnock's dog.
- Incredulous staff ultimately complied with crafting a digital ad on the subject to appease them.
Staffers allege Blanchard Walker — aided by unpaid campaign co-chair Michele Braddock-Beagle — ran a "shadow campaign" and refused to cede control of key strategy decisions to experienced, paid staff.
- "I don't think any of us has been OK," one campaign official told Axios. "It was just an effing roller coaster all the way through."
- Staffers said they had incomplete or no warning on the scandals that plagued Walker.
- Most still don't know what to believe of his many denials.
The other side: In response to a request for comment to Blanchard Walker, Timmy Teepell, who identified himself as a Walker campaign senior strategist, said:
- “This coordinated attack by disgruntled anonymous campaign staffers is unseemly, dishonest and unethical. Julie is a professional, energetic, and unwavering defender of her husband as she should be, and Herschel was a tireless campaigner who outworked everyone.“
- “The cowardly folks engaged in this dishonest whisper campaign should quit politics for the good of the country.”
A request for comment to Braddock-Beagle was not returned.
Between the lines: Walker acknowledged in his autobiography that he's long found it difficult to trust others.
- But because of this absence of trust, the Walkers' relationships with their own staff and consultants suffered. Few can recall conversations with the candidate in which his wife wasn’t present and doing most of the talking.
- "You can't have a campaign with no trust. It can be a tiny circle of trust, but it has to be a circle of trust," a campaign official said.
The big picture: Republicans believed Walker could overcome his checkered past in a year that saw Gov. Brian Kemp win by 8 points.
- But his ineffective campaign couldn’t combat the messaging from incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who appealed to swing voters by successfully pushing the narrative that Walker was a liar.
But, but, but: "The paralysis of the campaign is a symptom of a terrible candidate," said one Georgia GOP strategist who was asked to meet with Walker in the early stages of the campaign and did not.
- Although staff uniformly vouched for Walker as a "genuinely nice" person who, albeit inexperienced politically, was open to their ideas and feedback, many acknowledged they didn’t trust him.
- “I just stopped questioning if things were true or not,” another official said.
What happened: Staffers told Axios they were blindsided by almost all reports about Walker’s past — including undisclosed children, allegations of paid abortions, and reports of a homestead exemption in Texas.
- The Walkers’ response would be immediate flat denials, even when documents backed up the reports.
One example: Following the homestead exemption story, staff suggested it might have been an easily explainable accounting mistake, one campaign official recalled.
- But then Blanchard Walker emphatically denied the report and suggested it had been a conspiracy by the county government, blocking any proactive response.
- Again and again, the campaign was left with one option, said the official: "Ride it out. Ride it out. Every time."
Context: Embarking on a Senate bid after decades of largely uncritical press coverage meant the Walkers were naive about the level of scrutiny the candidate would get, staffers told Axios.
- And so the cascade of negative reporting resulted in a paranoia about media leaks and resentment of staff for not "protecting" Walker from it, officials said.
- Blanchard Walker — who previously worked in advertising for CBS — fixated on the press, sources said. She personally vetted interview requests, sometimes unilaterally booked interviews herself and edited the media RSVP list for election night parties, according to half a dozen staffers.
Threat level: Staff were afraid to be seen talking to reporters at events because of fear they’d be accused of media leaks by Blanchard Walker and Braddock-Beagle.
- Crucially, this meant they were blocked from advocating for their candidate in a brutal media environment, one official said.
- By the end of the campaign, staffers established an unspoken self-protection mode with the two. They would quietly advise one another when to skip certain events if either seemed unhappy with someone in particular, according to half a dozen staffers.
- It was "very much a bunker. We’re all in this together," said one official.
The intrigue: Blanchard Walker at one point wanted staff to call a reporter to correct a story that stated she’d owned her Atlanta house for 17 years — because she’d actually owned it for 18 years. Staff refused.
- "We couldn’t stop any of it," one official said.
- Blanchard Walker retained sole control over @HerschelWalker, a Twitter handle with nearly 1 million followers. That left staff at a disadvantage for any cohesive rapid response to negative reports.
One prominent example of the Walkers’ refusal to trust their campaign employees was what staff now refer to as "coachgate."
- In late November, a former coach on Walker’s high school football team, Curtis Dixon, campaigned for Warnock. Walker’s staff was convinced they should ignore it as a Warnock campaign ploy.
- But rather than respond to a simultaneous press conference with one of Walker’s ex-girlfriends, staffers spent hours scrambling to craft counter-messaging attacking Dixon.