Week by week, the Republican field to take on Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in 2022 keeps developing the way Donald Trump wants: into a would-be coronation for football legend and Trump family favorite Herschel Walker.
On Monday, former Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) announced he would not run for U.S. Senate, becoming the latest and most high-profile figure to bow out of consideration. GOP circles considered the stalwart Trump ally to be a likely candidate for the office. He sought the Senate seat just last year, after all, when he unsuccessfully challenged his fellow Republican, then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
But even with no GOP incumbent in his way this time, Collins ruled himself out—and he did it surprisingly early. Some Georgia insiders say that Walker didn’t play a role in Collins’ calculus, but the former University of Georgia football great is casting an undeniable shadow over the GOP primary as he decides whether to run.
And that is because it is abundantly clear to all Republicans how badly Trump and his family want Herschel Walker to run.
Publicly, the former president has encouraged Walker to run against Warnock. But his behind-the-scenes push has been even more robust. In recent weeks, Trump has personally asked GOP senators to call Walker and urge him to get in the race, according to two people familiar with those conversations. He has even merged senators onto his own calls with Walker to push them to make the pitch. (Walker could not be reached for comment.)
With Trump’s enthusiastic support behind him, however, Walker could be tough to beat in a GOP primary in Georgia. But the party needs a candidate who can take down Warnock, and there’s a sense among some Republicans in the state that an untested first-time candidate like Walker could be a risky prospect in what may be the most closely-watched Senate race in the country.
Given those concerns—and the continued uncertainty over where Walker actually stands on a run—some Republicans aren’t taking the prospect of his candidacy all that seriously. Neither are many Democrats. The most important person in the GOP, however, is extremely serious, and that’s all that matters right now.
“Anyone not taking [Walker] seriously hasn’t spoken with President Trump or his orbit,” said one Georgia Republican. “They are all-in on him.”
Hanging in the balance of Trump’s pressure campaign is the direction of the most closely divided battleground state in the country—not to mention that of the U.S. Senate and Joe Biden’s presidency. With the Senate evenly divided, a GOP net pick-up of just one seat would return Mitch McConnell to the majority leader’s office with veto power over much of Biden’s agenda.
Georgia is at the top of the party’s target list for 2022, but you might not know it judging by who has passed on this race already. Beyond Collins, former Sen. David Perdue was seen as a strong possible candidate to challenge Warnock after his defeat in January’s runoff. But Perdue announced in February that he would not run, quickly ending speculation about a possible return to the Senate.
Two ambitious Republicans have already jumped into the race: Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL who served on Trump’s National Security Council, and Kelvin King, an Air Force veteran and construction businessman. Both are also first-time candidates.
A handful of more seasoned politicians are waiting in the wings. Potentially in the mix are a trio of GOP House members—Reps. Buddy Carter, Drew Ferguson, and Austin Scott—as well as a slate of local current and former elected officials. Carter, who represents the Savannah area, probably spoke for others in saying publicly his decision to run hinges on whether or not Walker does.
The person who last held this seat, former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, is perhaps the last major unspoken-for Republican beyond Walker. The Atlanta businesswoman, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to the Senate in 2019, spent the two-month runoff campaign courting the far-right wing of the party and trying to avoid Trump’s vicious grudge against Kemp for not overturning Biden’s win in the state. She lost to Warnock by just over 2 points, having spent $23 million of her own money on the race.
After leaving office, Loeffler started a nonprofit called Greater Georgia, conceived as a conservative response to Democratic leader Stacey Abrams’ efforts to register more Georgia voters and get them to the polls.
Loeffler is generally seen as unlikely to take on another bruising primary and rematch with Warnock, but the former senator has remained at the center of the state’s biggest political fight: voting and elections.
Greater Georgia has staunchly defended Kemp’s controversial new law reworking the state’s election system. And on Wednesday, Loeffler sent a letter to the state attorney general asking him to investigate Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—whom she called upon to resign during the runoff campaign—for allegedly using his office for “political self-gain.”
Many Republicans say they need to diversify their usual slate of candidates in order to unseat Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. “If I’m a Georgia Republican, you want either a woman not named Kelly Loeffler or someone of color,” an operative in the state told The Daily Beast.
That’s where Walker would come in. His life story is familiar to many Georgians: he grew up in a working-class family in middle Georgia and became an all-star high school student and athlete before his Hall of Fame career for the Georgia Bulldogs. The first professional team he played for in the 1980s was the New Jersey Generals, then owned by Trump, which is how the two first met. He’s had a relationship with the Trump family since, and is especially close to the ex-president’s son, Don, Jr., who has actively urged Walker to pursue a Senate run. In his 2019 book, Trump Jr. recalled taking a trip to Disney World with Walker and his family when he was 6 years old.
In retirement, Walker has been active in GOP politics in his home state—where he maintains a residence—though he now lives full-time in Texas. In 2014, he appeared in an ad supporting former GOP Rep. Jack Kingston when he faced Perdue that year. Along with Trump, he backed Kemp’s bid for governor in 2018.
In 2020, Walker held an honorary position on Loeffler’s campaign, appeared with Trump at various campaign events, and starred in a runoff ad in which he “tossed” the pigskin back and forth between Perdue and Loeffler.
After Trump’s defeat, Walker backed the Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and tweeted approval of some of the outlandish conspiracies advanced by Lin Wood, the Atlanta lawyer who briefly spearheaded a parallel effort to help the former president and Republican’s attempts to overturn the election. After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Walker tweeted conspiratorial musings that the insurrection was a kind of false-flag operation.
Unsurprisingly, the former football star is broadly well-liked within the party base and among a set of operatives and activists who have grown bullish on his candidacy.
“He’s gonna be a formidable candidate if he chooses to run,” said Jason Shepherd, a longtime GOP activist who is running for chair of the state party. “Herschel Walker is going to be difficult to attack. He has an extraordinary story to tell that’ll make him a very powerful candidate.”
“I can see him clearing the field if he jumps in,” Shepherd added.
Barely any time passed after the Jan. 5 runoff before Trumpworld made clear it wanted Walker in the Senate race. In a recent Fox News appearance, Walker confirmed he was taking a serious look at running, but even the state’s most plugged-in Republicans are largely in the dark about what he will do.
Democrats, meanwhile, are bemused that Walker is the giant looming over this field, and they are confident that Warnock is well-positioned to take him on. Just over two months after ending a 2020 cycle in which he raised over $138 million, Warnock is building up his war chest again, with over $5.6 million in the bank as of April 1.
“If they want it to happen, fine” said one Georgia Democrat of a Walker bid. “Good luck with that.”
Shepherd, a former Cobb County GOP chair, said that the fact Walker does not live in Georgia is hardly an impediment. Like several other Republicans who spoke with The Daily Beast, he noted that Hillary Rodham Clinton purchased a home in New York after deciding to run for Senate in the state in 1999.
“He may not physically live in Georgia,” Shepherd said, “but he’s never away from Georgia for very long.”