Herschel Walker’s Win in Georgia Complicates Republican Efforts to Retake the Senate

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ATLANTA—Doug Hollandsworth counts himself among Herschel Walker’s biggest fans, but isn’t shy about saying the admiration stems from his football talents, not his political ambitions.

“I hope Herschel doesn’t win,” the 64-year-old consultant from Monroe said Tuesday night, just moments before The Associated Press called Georgia’s Republican primary for Senate in Walker’s favor. “If he gets there, Democrats in November are going to shoot him down. In football, go, Herschel, go. In politics, I’ll vote for him if that’s all we’ve got.”

He isn’t alone in that worry about how Walker will fare. National Republicans have been fretting for weeks about the outcome of this Senate primary, yet seemed powerless to step in with a solution. The next-best-polling candidate, state agriculture commissioner Gary Black, seemed unable to crack double digits in most public polling. Despite Black’s constant hammering that Walker cannot win in November—“The baggage is too heavy; it’ll never happen.”—Walker seemed on a safe path to clearing 50% and avoiding a runoff by more than a mere field goal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who stands to gain the most if Republicans retake the Senate this fall, stuck with his endorsement of Walker.

The combination of Walker’s celebrity, his Heisman Trophy from 1982, and ex-President Donald Trump’s endorsement seemed impossible to derail. And yet, in talking with Republicans in Georgia this week, there was a sense that Walker was infinitely vulnerable and now tethered to Trump.

“I’m not a fan of Trump. I wish he hadn’t inserted himself in any of these races,” says Susan Bogardus, a 56-year-old commercial lender from Athens. “But we don’t always get what we want.”

The fact that Walker is a political neophyte fighting in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country is the least of the reasons to fret. Walker has been open about his diagnosis of dissociative personality disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder, a mental illness associated with changes in behavior. An ex-wife told reporters of alleged violent tendencies, including his once pointing a gun at her head. In recent days, local news was dominated by reports of irregularities in Walker’s business dealings and his misleading assertions about charitable work that he actually performed as a paid celebrity endorser.

And, at a rally near the University of Georgia on Monday, Walker acknowledged his campaign would rather have him talking about anything other than his total opposition to abortion rights—and then repeated his desire to ban all abortions, a position that puts him wildly out of the mainstream for most voters as the country waits to see if the Supreme Court will effectively end federal abortion rights as defined by Roe v. Wade.

To say Walker could have a problematic next few months would be generous. His campaign dismisses the questions as a political hit job, much the way Trump weathered a litany of political and legal troubles as “fake news.” Walker refused to debate his primary opponents and has dodged questions about alleged domestic violence, stalking, and threats against women dating back more than a decade. That brush-off works, but only to a point, especially when Democrats are already primed to defend their unexpected victory from early 2021, when the Rev. Raphael Warnock staged an upset.

Walker starts his general-election campaign with another disadvantage, although it’s not expected to be persistent. He had a little more than $7 million in his campaign account, according to his last filing; Warnock reported almost $23 million on his most recent report.

A nationalized race with celebrity candidates gets pricey, quickly. Already, $15 million in outside money has been spent, plus the $12 million from the candidates’ accounts. But the national spotlight can sometimes yield washed-out colors by the time November arrives. Just ask celebrity Democrats like Beto O’Rourke and Amy McGrath, whose national profiles didn’t translate to local victories despite Democrats shipping cash by the crate to their Senate bids.

But Walker may have a local advantage that bleeds well beyond politics. “Herschel is going to take it. It’s not because he’s a better man or better politician,” says Eric Oliver, a 66-year-old actor from Dunwoody. “He’s an African-American football player in this state. There are a lot of folks who will support a football player over a preacher. In this state, football is everything.”

He then adds the all-important caveat: “Unless he steps in it.”

The Senate currently stands at a 50-50 tie, meaning every even-marginally-competitive seat will get heaps of national attention, money, and advice. Georgia is one of Republicans’ few pick-up opportunities, which they must pursue while defending potentially expensive seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. If McConnell is to reclaim the title of Majority Leader, he needs to land clean wins in places like Georgia.

But there already have been some potential misfires. In Ohio, Trump-convert J.D. Vance won the Republican nomination for Senate with a record Democrats have already started weaponizing. Next door in Pennsylvania, counting continues in a nail-biter of a GOP primary between celebrity-doc Mehmet Oz and hedge-funder David McCormick. Elsewhere, Missouri Republicans could wind up nominating disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned amid a sex scandal, to vie for the seat held by retiring Sen. Roy Blunt. And Colorado, New Hampshire, and Arizona could also wind up with nominees that can be seen as fringe figures without much effort.

Such developments could wind up dogging Republicans and handing Democrats a continuing majority.

There’s plenty of risk to the broader Republican tickets as well. A fringe candidate can be a drag on turnout, and an easily criticized one can bolster Democratic interest across the ballot. Women, in particular, are a worry for Republicans; frustrated female voters in the Atlanta suburbs, for example, may take out their frustration with the GOP nominating a candidate accused of domestic abuse by not only voting for Warnock, but also for Stacey Abrams, who is vying to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who coasted to re-nomination on Tuesday despite Trump’s efforts to oust him.

But in a sign of why Walker may not be ready for political primetime, Kemp’s team was able to book the College Football Hall of Fame for Tuesday night as the returns came in. The building, right on Centennial Olympic Park, would have been a perfect match for Walker, who was a standout player at the University of Georgia before his NFL days. Instead, Walker was around the corner at a hotel.

For his part, McConnell has been very transparent in his worries about less-than-ideal nominees amid an environment that should seemingly favor his return to power. “Which leads you to ask the question, ‘How could you screw this up?’ It’s actually possible, and we’ve had some experience with that in the past,” McConnell said last month.

If Republicans can’t stage a rebrand—and fast—in Georgia, they could wind up with déjà vu in November, contending with another candidate in a winnable race who fell short. This time, the problem won’t have been a candidate struggling with the wrong message or bad headwinds. Instead, it will be because their voters couldn’t look beyond celebrity and its ultimate avatar, Trump.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com