Why Trump wants Herschel Walker to Run for the U.S. Senate in Georgia

Why Trump wants Herschel Walker to Run for the U.S. Senate in Georgia

Herschel Walker, the famous former National Football League running back turned unlikely GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia, has —like his mentor, former President Donald Trump — largely managed to avoid having controversy stick to him.

But will his association with a swastika that is drawn with syringes instead of black lines —  a double whammy anti-vaxx suggestion that vaccination campaigns are akin to Nazism — be too much?

The symbol was the Twitter profile picture of a film producer, Bettina Sofia Viviano-Langlais, who had been hosting a fundraiser for Walker on Oct. 16 at her Texas home. 

When initially asked about it by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Walker campaign didn’t withdraw its support, with a spokesperson denying that it was even a swastika. “This is clearly an anti-mandatory vaccination graphic,” said the campaign without referencing the offensive Nazi part. 

Within hours — as outrage erupted from Jewish groups, Democrats and others —  the Walker campaign canceled the suburban Dallas fundraiser, saying in a statement, “Despite the fact that the apparent intent behind the graphic was to condemn government vaccine mandates, the symbol used is very offensive and does not reflect the values of Herschel Walker or his campaign.” 

The producer made no apologies for appropriating the fascist symbol, though she did remove the image from her Twitter page. “My biggest disappointment is that yet again another conservative has decided to succumb to the outrage mob, cancel culture, and cancel the event,” she told The Daily Mail.

Walker doesn’t have to worry much about that: he’s getting a fundraising boost from Trump who is hosting a big-ticket reception and dinner for him at — where else? — Mar-A-Lago, on Dec. 1.

And expect some additional glitz at that one, with wrestling legend Ric Flair, former Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie (who was Walker’s teammate on the Trump-owned New Jersey Generals) and Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine all listed on the Honorary Host Committee. Tickets range from $25,000 for dinner and a photo with Walker and Trump to a minimum of $1,000 for the reception.

Walker is never too far from Trump’s sphere.

When the former president decided to attend Game 4 of the World Series in Atlanta Oct. 30 – he said he was invited but MLB said he was the one to ask for tickets – he made sure to have Walker as one of his guests. After all, it’s a natural fit for Walker with Atlanta in a sports frenzy for the Braves, who went on to win the World Series.

And, of course, because it was Trump, there was controversy, with lots of photos of Trump and wife Melania doing the Tomahawk chop, a gesture offensive to many Native Americans. Walker was out of sight for those moments. (The biggest takeaway, to the delight of late-night comics, was of Melania going from a smile to a scowl as she turned away from Trump.)

Walker’s football success — he’s a Heisman trophy winner and had a long-time NFL career — good looks, remarkable physique, and genial demeanor have all worked for him in the past. 

Will it play differently in politics?

There’s something about Herschel. . . and it’s something that Trump saw back more than 30 years ago. Walker, a running back for the University of Georgia who became the 1982 Heisman winner, played for the off-brand United States Football League team, the New Jersey Generals, that Trump bought in 1983 and the two became close. 

In March, the former president called for Walker to run for U.S. Senate in Georgia for a seat critical to the Republican Party’s hopes of winning back control of the Senate. 

But there was the matter of his residency since Walker, who played for the Dallas Cowboys during two different stints in the 1980s and 1990s, has lived in Texas for years. 

The inducement, though, was that Trump would give Walker his all-important endorsement, effectively ensuring him the GOP nomination. 

Walker has recently solidified his support among Republicans with endorsements from the all-important Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – who has had an icy relationship with Trump since Jan. 6 — and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD).  

“Herschel is the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate. I look forward to working with Herschel in Washington to get the job done,” McConnell said in a statement. 

Politico reported that in a new poll by OnMessage Inc., a GOP political consulting firm, 74% of GOP primary voters would vote for Walker, with only 6% for his closest competitor, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, and 16% undecided. The poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Oct. 11-14 and has a margin of error of +/- 4.9%.  

In an early September poll by the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group, which works for Republicans and independents, Walker led three GOP rivals with 75.7% of the vote. 

And in a sign of fundraising strength, his campaign just announced it had received $3.7 million in contributions from nearly 50,000 voters in 50 states. 

Trump lost Georgia in 2020 — which he falsely disputes — but he’s still got a hold on the GOP base there. And the Senate seat is one of the two Georgia races Republicans lost in runoff elections in January, giving Democrats control of the 50/50-split Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris, who constitutionally presides over the chamber, providing the tie-breaking vote.

At a Trump rally on Sept. 25 at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricultural Center in Perry, Walker appeared with the former president and two other candidates Trump endorsed in other races and gave what was his maiden campaign speech, having filing to run in late August. 

And while the themes were largely general, he did talk for about 10 minutes in a conversational, relatable way that the crowd seemed to eat it up from the Georgia hero who brought the national football championship to the state in 1981.

“Herschel Walker don’t look like a politician. Herschel Walker don’t dress like a politician. Herschel Walker don’t sound like a politician,” Trump said, deliberately sounding folksy. “But Herschel Walker is running for the United State Senate from Georgia.”

His qualifications for his first-time try at electoral office: “What qualifies me to run is because I love America.”

As for his long-time away from the Peach State: “I am Wrightsville-born. I am Georgia-bred. And I’m gonna die Jesus Christ-dead, because I love the Lord.”  (Wrightsville is a small town of about 2,000 people midway between Savannah and Atlanta.)  

Walker kept his remarks positive and talked about bringing the country together, avoiding Trump’s divisive claims of a rigged 2020 election.

But there’s still that overarching question of just how political the inexperienced Walker is, especially given his very curious voting record.

Walker registered to vote in Georgia just days before announcing his Senate run, listing his residence as an Atlanta-area property owned by his second wife, Julie Blanchard, with whom he has been in a relationship for about a decade and married in May. 

But he’s lived in Texas for years — and records from the secretary of state show he has been registered to vote in Tarrant County — in North Texas where Fort Worth is located — going back to 2011.

And they show that he only voted once.

Texas records requested by The News Station reveal that, for active registrations going back to 2011, Walker only voted in one general election, November 2020, when Trump was on the ballot the second time. Walker did not vote in 2016.

“Herschel Walker is actively registered in Tarrant County, and has only voted in the November 2020 General Election in Tarrant County,” Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state told The News Station. “He voted early in-person on October 26, 2020, at the Southlake Town Hall polling place.” 

It’s not clear if Walker voted or was even registered to vote prior to 2011. But, according to the records, he did not vote in the 2016 presidential election that brought Trump to power. Meanwhile, his wife was cleared of a voting violation for having voted via absentee ballot in Georgia in 2020 while living in Texas. 

One prominent Black politician and former college football player in Texas, who said he knows Walker “in passing,” was stunned by his run for U.S. Senate.

“I’ve never known him to do anything political,” said Texas state Sen. Royce West. A Democrat from North Texas first elected to the chamber in 1993, West himself ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020 in Texas, only to lose in the Democratic primary runoff. 

Asked if he was surprised that Walker announced he was running for U.S. Senate, West said, “very surprised.”

“We’ll see what he brings to the table besides just being an outstanding football player,” West said.

Walker has been unconventional before – as part of the 1992 U.S. Olympic bobsled team (did not medal) and, briefly, a professional MMA fighter in the late 2000s.  

He even did a brief turn as a ballet dancer – really – or, at least, as a performer in a ballet dance that got national attention with the Fort Worth Ballet back in 1988 when he played for the Cowboys. The poster of a shirtless Walker with his 50-inch chest enfolding an ethereal ballerina, Maria Terezia Balogh, became a popular collectors’ item. 

Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer. Originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

All the while, he has stayed close to Trump, even appearing on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009 (he was fired in the eighth episode). In 2018, the then-president named him a co-chair of the President’s Council on Sport, Fitness, and Nutrition for a two-year term.

But there are lots of unknowns about his chances in the Georgia Senate race.

Walker is a black conservative in a state that is 32.6% African American, according to the U.S. Census — and where Black voters fueled President Biden’s victory; he’s a political novice with no experience in office; and has lived mostly in Texas for the last 30 years.  

(Political experts told Georgia media that he can legally run in Georgia while continuing to live in Texas, needing to move his residence in-state only if he wins the general election.) 

But race is very much at play in the election. If Walker wins the primary, he’d be challenging another African American, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) — a prominent Atlanta preacher and political activist — in the general election.

Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta who is also African American, said that Walker’s celebrity and closeness to Trump makes him a safe bet for primary voters choosing among four candidates for U.S. Senate in May — but he’ll need more than that.

“The Trump wing struggled with African American voters,” she said, referring to a pattern of racist comments by Trump supporters. “Boosting an African American candidate seems like a bit of an antidote.”

“The calculation is that  [Walker’s candidacy] counters charges of racism,” she added. 

But hero worship that transcends political party is also at play, especially for a generation of Georgia Bulldog fans who still get breathless at the mention of his name.

“He was the last Heisman trophy winner from Georgia, and he won the national championship,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia who remembers Walker as a student being “very personable, gregarious.” 

“For University of Georgia alums,” Bullock added, “he walks on water.”

But that was a generation ago and Walker, 59, isn’t doing the kinds of winning strategies that are usually expected in a campaign according to Bullock. “He hasn’t been on the campaign trail. He’s largely limited to showing up at UGA games. He’s not going to Republican events. It is not a typical kind of candidacy.”

Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, agreed.

“For University of Georgia fans, Herschel Walker is an icon,” Jones said. 

“The Anglo vote is locked down,” he added. “He’ll win over 75% of the Anglo vote, but he needs to win 25% of the African American vote.” 

If he does peel off more of the African American vote, Jones said, “he’ll be in good shape.”

Walker’s media strategy seems to be to simply appear on Fox News — where his son, Christian Walker, 22, has also been a regular as a Gen Z conservative with a large presence on TikTok. Meanwhile, Walker’s campaign website (called Team Herschel) does not even list any policy positions.

Still, while some troubling reports about his past — Walker talked about having multiple personality disorder in  his 2008 memoir, “Breaking Free,” and an AP investigation found that his ex-wife had to secure a protective order against him when he repeatedly threatened her life — got some initial attention, GOP voters are seemingly either in a forgiving mood or not really focused on the election.

It seems like the Georgia voters who do know Walker may see him more as the heroic archetype who is in the poster made to advertise his ballet performance.

The ballerina who appears with him certainly remembers him that way. 

“He was fabulous,” said Maria Terezia Balogh in a recent interview with TNS. “He had never done ballet. It was mainly partnering. He was gracious, graceful, charming, and humble as can be.” 

She gave him high marks for taking the role seriously and working hard to learn his steps. “He would retain everything.” 

Then a principal ballerina with the Fort Worth Ballet, Balogh was the centerpiece of a modern ballet, “Webern Pieces.” But, really, the centerpiece of the performance was Walker — who drew a crowd of fans and young people not usually attracted to the ballet, reported media outlets, including the AP and the New York Times . The picture that became the poster was even on Page One of the hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram. (Walker was not paid for the appearance but did it to support the ballet company, which is now known as Texas Ballet Theater.)

Balogh never saw Walker again, but her recollection is vivid. Walker was so strong; she thinks he could have held her up by his fingertips. “It was amazing. It was amazing to have that power behind me,” she said.

But even in the ballet, football’s allure was not so far away. At the end of the dance, Walker and a male dancer dropped down to the three-point stance players use on the field. 

It brought down the house.

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