ATLANTA (AP) — Herschel Walker on Tuesday filed paperwork to enter the U.S. Senate race in Georgia after months of speculation, joining other Republicans seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in 2022.
The 59-year-old Walker joins the race with high name recognition, known for winning a Heisman Trophy in 1982 as a University of Georgia running back. Perhaps more importantly in today’s Republican Party, he carries the backing of former President Donald Trump.
Walker has never run for office and will likely face scrutiny over past struggles with mental illness as well as policy stances. But if he emerges from the Republican primary, the Senate contest would feature two Black men vying for a seat in the heart of the Deep South.
Walker stayed mum Tuesday, continuing a pattern of few comments even has he started taking steps to put a Senate bid in motion. He registered to vote last week, using an Atlanta residence owned by his wife, Julie Blanchard. Walker signed Federal Election Commission papers Tuesday declaring his candidacy, allowing him to raise money for a Senate run.
Republicans already running for the Senate seat include state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, former banking executive and Navy veteran Latham Saddler and contractor Kelvin King. Some other potential GOP candidates may not run with Walker’s entry into the race, including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost a to Warnock in a January special election runoff, and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a four-term congressman from near Savannah.
Walker is banking on Trump’s support to distinguish himself in the GOP primary. Their close relationship dates back to the 1980s, when Walker played for a Trump-owned team in the short-lived United States Football League. Walker, who went on to play 12 seasons in the National Football League, spoke in support of Trump at the 2020 Republican National Convention and recently attended Trump’s private birthday celebration.
Trump has publicly encouraged Walker to enter the primary, telling a radio show in June that “he’s a great guy, he’s a patriot and he’s a very loyal person, he’s a very strong person. They love him in Georgia, I tell you.”
The former president’s support will be key in a Republican primary, but could be a liability in a general election in closely divided Georgia, where a crucial fraction of more affluent Republican voters defected to Democrat Joe Biden.
Walker could share a Republican ticket with Gov. Brian Kemp, a frequent target of Trump attacks, as Kemp seeks reelection. Trump has vowed vengeance against Kemp, saying he didn’t do enough to overturn Trump’s election loss. It’s unclear if that enmity would damage Republican chances, with Democrats possibly fielding a united ticket of Warnock and Stacey Abrams. Walker endorsed Kemp, who is a fervent Georgia football fan, in Kemp’s 2018 victory over Abrams.
Walker has been living outside Dallas and is making his first run for office. Untested as a candidate, it’s unclear whether Walker will be an adept campaigner or fundraiser, or whether he can build a network in a state where he hasn’t lived in more than 30 years. He has written about past mental illness and will likely have to address the issue again, while also fleshing out positions on policy matters he’s never had to address in detail. Walker has supported Trump’s unproven assertions that he was cheated out of reelection.
Although Trump supporters are firmly in control of Georgia’s Republican Party, a faction including some top donors are still unhappy about the loss of two Senate seats and might not welcome a Trump proxy in another Senate race.
The Associated Press has reported that Walker’s ex-wife and her sister said he threatened his ex-wife’s life, that Walker exaggerated claims about private-sector success and that he often fought with business associates.
State election officials opened an investigation into Blanchard’s residency after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that records show she voted in Georgia despite living in Texas. A case sheet obtained by the AP shows the Secretary of State’s office opened the investigation into Blanchard on Aug. 10. Walker is among Trump supporters who continue to repeat the president’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him through fraud. Election officials nationwide found no widespread fraud.
But Walker’s football past and business ventures could be strong calling cards in the state. Supporters hope he can reach moderate Republicans as well as peel off some African Americans who traditionally vote for Democrats.
Walker was raised in Wrightsville, 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Macon. He was not only a star running back who led the Johnson County Trojans to a state championship, but valedictorian of a class of 104 at a high school that now stands on a street named after him. He was an Olympic bobsledder in 1992 and dabbled in mixed martial arts long after he retired from the gridiron.