Herschel Walker and the GOP’s Trump Candidate Problem

13 minute read

Some U.S. senators give windy, pompous speeches, dense with policy and argument. No one need worry that Herschel Walker would be that kind of U.S. senator. “They told me I had a mental problem,” Walker says, two big hands resting on a wooden lectern. “I go to the hospital, I go, ‘Whoa, these people here are crazy, I’m not like them!’ But then I realized I was exactly like they were.”

It’s a bright morning in McDonough, a quaint little town on the outskirts of Atlanta, and the sports hero-turned-candidate is recounting how, two decades ago, he underwent psychiatric hospitalization to deal with his “alters,” the multiple personalities that had been behind his years of erratic and violent behavior, including repeatedly threatening his then-wife with guns and knives. It’s supposed to be a story about buried trauma and not being afraid to ask for help. But Walker suddenly gets off on a tangent about book publishing, another topic to which his audience, about 60 of the local Republican faithful, may or may not be able to relate. “What you do is, you look around and make sure that there’s no there’s no writer putting his book out at that time,” Walker says. “You wait till there’s no one putting their book out that week, that’s when you put your book out.”

A few days after this appearance, Walker’s campaign will be rocked by the news that the supposedly anti-abortion candidate paid for a girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009, alleged behavior he will alternately deny (“It’s totally, totally untrue”) and defend (“If that had happened, I would have said there’s nothing to be ashamed of”). His 23-year-old son will denounce him as a hypocrite and absent father, and Republicans from Washington to Atlanta will publicly fret that they’ve blown their chances in a competitive Senate race.

But long before the current scandal, everyone watching the campaign knew Walker was a disaster waiting to happen. Top Republicans tried to keep him out of the race in the wake of domestic-violence allegations made by his ex-wife, which Walker did not deny. After he won the May primary, the news that he had fathered three previously unacknowledged children rocked his campaign. And then there are the nutty things he’s said, from falsely claiming to have graduated college and worked in law enforcement to peddling a quack COVID-19 cure to wondering, if evolution is true, “why are there still apes?”

Read More: 5 Senate Races That Will Define the Midterms.

But Donald Trump wanted him to run, so Walker ran, and the GOP tried to make the best of it. “If we’re being intellectually honest, Herschel Walker won the primary because he scored a bunch of touchdowns back in the ‘80s and he was Donald Trump’s friend,” Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, said on CNN recently.

Walker’s is not the only Senate race where Trump-anointed candidates are giving the GOP fits. As the midterm elections draw nigh, the party finds itself saddled with several problematic nominees who owe their spots on the ballot to a former President whose endorsements are as consequential as they are capricious. In four of the most crucial races on the Senate map—Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio—quirky political newcomers blessed by Trump are underperforming.

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The combined picture has many Republicans privately grousing that the former President may cost them the majority despite otherwise favorable conditions—again. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump has bad instincts in terms of picking winners,” especially outside of deep-red areas of the country, says Liz Mair, an anti-Trump GOP consultant. “As of right now, it doesn’t look like it will be a good election night overall for Trump or the overwhelming majority of his picks.”

Since 2016, every American election has revolved around Trump, from his surprise election as President to two successive cycles of backlash, plus numerous special, off-year and runoff elections in between. Last year, Trump’s obsession with overturning the election he falsely claimed was stolen helped deliver Georgia’s two Senate seats and the chamber majority to the Democrats. Now, in the first national election since he left office, Trump continues to exert outsize influence on the political landscape despite his status as a bystander. And for the GOP, that has not been a good thing.

In McDonough, Walker speaks at an art gallery hung with paintings of local landscapes plus a framed Walker jersey. A three-tiered silver tray piled with Chick-Fil-A breakfast sandwiches sits on a table by the front door. His stump speech is a rambling 25-minute monologue of Bible references, personal stories and random policy slogans. “We are a country of immigrants, but we’re also a country of laws,” he proclaims at one point. “You know, they want to go home safe too. But we’ve gotten to a point that we disrespect our police.” He urges the crowd not to listen to the deceptions perpetrated equally by Satan and the left. “They’re lying to you, telling you that you’re bad people, that you’re racist people,” he says. “I’m telling you that you’re good people.”

Walker was the University of Georgia’s star running back for three years starting in 1980, when he led the team to an undefeated record and the national championship. “I was one of those kids that wasn’t supposed to make it,” he says. “I had a speech impediment, couldn’t put a sentence together. My mom said I was big-boned, meaning I was fat. No one ever thought I’d get an opportunity, but through the grace of God I got a chance to go to college.” After winning the Heisman Trophy his junior year, Walker left without graduating to play professionally and went on to a 12-year career in the NFL.

But after his career ended, the unresolved trauma he’d used sports to cope with bubbled up, he says. In 2001, after a string of alarming incidents, he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, which used to be known as multiple personality disorder, and got treatment that helped him rein in his dozen “alters.” This narrative of redemption is recounted in Walker’s 2008 book, Breaking Free, which he has said he wrote in order to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. In a new ad aimed at putting the issue to rest, Walker addresses the camera directly: “As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health—even wrote a book about it,” he says. “And by the grace of god, I’ve overcome it.” Taken literally, he seems to be saying he battled and defeated his own mental health, which would certainly explain things. But some of the scandals that have recently come to light postdate Walker’s book and alleged recovery, including the births of two of his undisclosed children in 2009 and 2012 and the abortion he allegedly subsidized in 2009.

Some GOP leaders originally hoped for a more traditional candidate to take on Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, himself a political newcomer. But Trump and Walker had been friends for decades, since Trump owned the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct U.S. Football League. Walker, who calls Trump a role model in his book, had been a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice, supported Trump for President and spoke at the GOP convention in 2020. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Trump wrote in a March 2021 statement. “He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL. He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!” Trump’s support helped Walker clear the field of big-name challengers, and the Republican establishment resigned itself to his candidacy. Walker easily won the primary.

Trump’s support was also key for another celebrity friend with a nontraditional political resume. Mehmet Oz, a Turkish-American cardiologist who achieved national fame by appearing as a medical expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show beginning in 2004, had been trailing businessman Dave McCormick in the Pennsylvania Republican primary until Trump endorsed him in mid-April. “I have known Dr. Oz for many years, as have many others, even if only through his very successful television show,” Trump said in a statement at the time. “He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart.” Oz pulled ahead after Trump’s endorsement and edged out McCormick in a race that required a recount.

As with Walker, Trump’s assessment of Oz’s viability was based mostly on his celebrity. To Trump, politics is indistinguishable from fandom. But Oz’s general-election campaign has been a rough ride. The candidate disappeared for most of the summer—reportedly vacationing in Palm Beach and Ireland—while his opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, pilloried him as an out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey. A viral video of Oz complaining about inflation while shopping for vegetables for “crudité” didn’t help matters. Fetterman has his own issues, including the after-effects of a stroke that took him off the campaign trail for months and a history of liberal positions. But Oz trails him by an average of 7 points in the polls.

Read More: Breakfast With J.D. Vance, Anti-Trump Author Turned Pro-Trump Candidate.

In Ohio, the GOP field was similarly muddled until Trump weighed in, selecting J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and bestselling author, over a field of candidates with more traditional résumés. But local Republicans complain that Vance has struggled to raise money and has barely campaigned: “The Republican faithful are telling me they can’t find J.D. Vance with a search warrant,” a Cincinnati conservative radio host told the Daily Beast in late July. In a red-trending state that Trump won by 8 points in 2020, the race is currently neck and neck. National Republicans recently invested $28 million to prop up Vance’s campaign, money the party would have preferred to spend elsewhere.

Trump’s endorsement also proved decisive in Arizona, where it boosted another political newcomer, Blake Masters, to victory in the state’s Aug. 2 GOP primary. Masters, like Vance, is associated with the “new right,” a nationalist-traditionalist ideology that emphasizes isolationism and the family and is the subject of increasing interest in conservative intellectual circles. Both are proteges of the billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, to whom Masters served as a top aide. But Masters’ hard-edged persona and positions have made it difficult to win over independent voters, and his campaign, too, has struggled with fundraising. In current polling, he trails his opponent, Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, by an average of 7 points.

Both parties hold 50 seats in the Senate, giving Democrats a functional majority with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote. Of the 35 seats up for election this year, 10 are considered competitive, five of them held by Democrats (including Georgia and Arizona), five by Republicans (including Ohio and Pennsylvania). With just one net seat needed to take the majority, many Republicans now fret that Trump’s arbitrary game of favorites may well cost them control of the chamber.

But then again, Trump didn’t invent this play. Republicans were blowing winnable races long before Trump came along: in both 2010 and 2012, Tea Party-driven candidates beat out establishment candidates and then lost their general elections under otherwise favorable circumstances, denying the party a majority. “You can say this is Trump’s fault, but it wouldn’t be the first time Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” says Liam Donovan, a D.C.-based GOP lobbyist and former National Republican Senatorial Committee staffer. Many of Trump’s endorsees emerged from fields of similarly flawed candidates, Donovan notes. But it is the party rank-and-file’s loyalty to Trump that gives him so much sway over its candidates in the first place.

If the party falls short of expectations next month, a blame game is sure to unfold, and the GOP establishment may try to pin blame on Trump. But critics argue that party leaders have earned their fate by giving in to Trump rather than purging him from the GOP. “To say that McConnell and Republican leadership in the Senate doesn’t own this lets them off the hook,” says Trygve Olson, an adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project who formerly advised the NRSC. “Through their unwillingness to take any kind of accountability, all they’ve done is prolong Trump’s insanity and end up with candidates who might well not be viable or support democratic norms if elected.”

Many or all of the floundering candidates Trump has inflicted on the party could well win. The polls are close and have been wrong before. Midterm elections have historically seen a backlash against the party in power. Americans’ attitudes toward the President and the economy, traditionally closely correlated with election results, are bleak—another factor in the Republicans’ favor. The voters I met at Walker’s event were under no illusion he was some sort of policy visionary, but they trusted him to go to Washington and vote for their favored policies and against the hated Democrats.

So Walker could wind up a U.S. senator in spite of it all. If he makes it, he would join a Republican caucus that already includes Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, the former Auburn football coach, whose puzzling utterances since being elected include not being able to name the three branches of government. For all his lack of traditional political qualifications, Walker wouldn’t even be the only former football star of dubious intellectual capacity in the U.S. Senate.

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Write to Molly Ball/McDonough, Ga. at molly.ball@time.com