Apr 20, 2022 - Politics

Herschel Walker is a unicorn

Illustration of the Republican elephant logo with a unicorn horn breaking out of its forehead.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump haven't talked since December 2020. But Herschel Walker — the former football star with a troubled past who's the Republican front-runner in Georgia's Senate race — talks weekly with both.

Why it matters: Walker is one of two non-incumbent candidates nationwide endorsed by both the Senate minority leader and the former president. (The other is Adam Laxalt in Nevada.) Walker's path offers an attractive-but-elusive model for Republican candidates navigating midterm campaigns under Trump's long shadow.

Driving the news: "I don’t dance and sing for nobody," Walker told Axios during an interview Monday on the campaign trail in LaGrange, Georgia. He also said: “I'm here to get elected, to worry about the people and not about President Trump, not about Mitch McConnell."

  • Walker, who's Black, stumped to a mostly white audience in LaGrange.
  • The majority-minority city of 30,000 people is about an hour southwest of Atlanta.

What we're hearing: Republicans say having McConnell's backing — as well as Trump's — gives Walker the strongest setup in a general election, if he advances to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock.

  • Other Trump-backed GOP Senate candidates, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, have yet to receive McConnell's support.
  • A few Republican Senate primary candidates courting Trump's favor, including Mo Brooks in Alabama, Eric Greitens in Missouri and Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska, have even pledged to oust McConnell from his leadership role if they're elected.
  • Though Walker said he speaks weekly with both Trump and McConnell, he also dismissed the notion those dynamics were impacting his strategy.

Between the lines: Independent polls show Walker with between 57% and 81% of the primary vote.

  • His reputation within Georgia as a football superstar and his close relationship with Trump catapulted him to the front of the pack.
  • That has come even as his campaign has largely shielded him from open press events, interviews with some outlets and the first televised primary debate.
  • “I’m not going to talk to anyone that I don’t want to talk to," Walker told Axios. "That’s one thing people don’t get about me. I don’t dance and sing for nobody."

State of play: After initial concerns from McConnell and his inner circle about Walker's viability and record, the Senate minority leader ultimately embraced Walker after Trump persuaded him to run.

  • The strength of their support shows in his $14.3 million fundraising haul, nearly quadruple that of any GOP opponent.

Between the lines: Walker's relationship with Trump also sets him apart.

The former president recruited Walker to play for his professional football team in 1984, and they've remained friends ever since.

As a result, Walker has been unafraid to create some daylight between him and Trump, unlike other candidates vying for his endorsement.

  • During an event in suburban Atlanta last fall, Walker said of the 2020 election: "I’m tired of hearing about the past. I’m tired of hearing about what happened, you know, the last election. We don’t care what happened in the last election.”

Yes, but: Some Republicans are still worried about how Walker would fare in an ultra-competitive general election, should Warnock aim the $25 million he has in the bank at Walker's record.

  • According to his campaign, Walker regularly talks to other senators to beef up his policy bona fides. Newt Gingrich has been enlisted to help with general election debate prep. (Walker said he's "considering" the other primary debates.)

The intrigue: Two super PACs aligned with Walker's primary opponents have recently launched, leaning into the idea his support would decline the more voters learn about his record.

  • Walker fired back that he "will put my resume against theirs any day of the week, and I'll still be at the top."
  • At the LaGrange event, Debra Jo Steele, a Heard County Republican Party official, challenged Walker for his absence from primary debates. She told Axios, "He needs to be answerable to the voters. ... It's just kind of arrogant not to be on the stage."
  • But Gail Jackson, a Walker supporter at the same event, told Axios that neither his past nor his absence from debates hurts her opinion: "He's not trying to hide anything. I respect that. He knew he had some trouble. He got help for it and straightened out. Makes me respect him more."

The past domestic abuse allegations Walker's faced don't appear to have significantly dampened his popularity.

  • McConnell, asked about allegations from Walker's ex-wife that he threatened her with a gun, recently told Axios: “Every candidate has flaws and assets. This candidate has a lot of assets and is very competitive and has a great chance of winning."
  • By contrast, Greitens had been leading in Missouri's Senate race despite facing scandal. But recent allegations from Greitens' ex-wife have driven down his support, and many Republicans are now urging him to drop out of the Aug. 2 primary.

The bottom line: Jason Shepherd, former chair of the Cobb County GOP, said he believes Walker is runoff proof: "Herschel Walker is a known entity."

  • But he cautioned: “Things get much harder in the November election.”

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