NFL legend Herschel Walker‘s Senate bid is less than 2 weeks old, and he has already been cast as a political opportunist and damaged goods — and that’s by fellow Republicans.
Mr. Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia, entered the primary race as an odds-on favorite but quickly hit the buzz saw from the state’s Republican Party establishment.
The campaign evokes memories of the knock-down, drag-out special election primary fight last year between Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins that helped pave the way to the Senate for Democrat Raphael Warnock.
“Right now, the other Republicans in the race want to define Walker,” said David Johnson, a Republican Party strategist. “They want to define him as another carpetbagger and as someone with so much baggage that he can’t beat Warnock.”
Mr. Walker‘s rivals have cast him as a relic and suggested that the lack of events in the first week of his campaign indicates concerns that he will go off script and must have something to hide.
The Walker campaign said his critics are desperate to dent his image.
“Herschel is not a politician and is not running a traditional campaign,” said Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount. “There are many on the left and the right who have seen Herschel‘s poll numbers and are trying their best to distract from his tremendous popularity with Georgia voters.
“He‘s running for office not because he needs to but because he is frustrated with the direction of the country and can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” she said.
The stakes in Georgia couldn’t be higher. Mr. Warnock’s pivotal win helped flip Senate control to the Democrats. Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to take back the Senate majority.
The good news for Republicans is that Georgia’s election calendar will be less compact than last year’s, giving the eventual nominee more time to hone a campaign message and strategy for the general election.
Mr. Warnock will be defending the record he has compiled since taking the oath of office this year. He is viewed as one of the more vulnerable Democrats.
Mr. Walker is the wild card in the Republican nomination race.
Other party candidates include Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner; Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer; and Kelvin King, a small-business owner and Air Force veteran from Atlanta.
Before Mr. Walker entered the race, news reports renewed questions about his mental health, whether he would exaggerate his business success, and his ex-wife’s accusation that he pointed a pistol at her head and threatened to “blow your f—-ing brains out.”
Political observers are generating a consistent stream of chatter about the idea that the National Republican Senatorial Committee fears Mr. Walker is too flawed to win and is trying to recruit former Sen. David Perdue as a candidate.
Critics say Mr. Walker has yet to engage with voters.
“They are running a Biden-in-the-basement campaign, and that means there is a problem with Herschel that his team does not want us to know about,” said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for the Black campaign. “Finding out after the primary would cost us the seat, and likely the Senate, and that would be an extinction-level event for America.”
He said, “Running for Senate isn’t signing autographs; it is about engaging and taking positions.”
Mr. Saddler greeted Mr. Walker’s entry into the race by saying, “This campaign isn’t about the glories of yesterday; it’s about our nation’s future.”
Mr. Walker has kept a low profile. He has focused on fundraising and is planning to ratchet up his campaign late this month with a listening tour across the state.
Nonetheless, his profile could be hard to beat.
The Heisman Trophy winner remains a star in the eyes of Georgia voters, and former President Donald Trump has endorsed him. “He was a great football player and will be an even better U.S. Senator — if that is even possible,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Walker has been open about his past struggles and diagnosis with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder.
Political operatives have picked through his 2008 book, “Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder.”
A recent Public Policy Polling survey shows Mr. Walker remains a beloved figure. He received favorable marks from 72% of Republican respondents and unfavorable marks from 7%. Another 20% were on the fence.
Mr. Walker announced his entry into the race last month with a video that sought to humanize him and provide a glimpse of his political compass.
He reminded voters that he grew up in Wrightsville, Georgia, shared footage of his stellar football career and blamed elected leaders for peddling “garbage” that has deepened political divisions along economic, racial and geographic lines.
“I’m a conservative not because someone told me to be,” said Mr. Walker, 59. “I’m a conservative because I believe in small government, a strong military, personal responsibility and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
“I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia who lived the American dream, and I’m ready to fight to keep that dream alive for you too,” he said.
Mr. Black has assumed the role of an attack dog in the race. His campaign ads cast Mr. Walker as a carpetbagger and remind voters that he has been living in Texas for decades.
“If my old schoolmate from UGA wants to join the conversation here in Georgia, I welcome hearing his ideas,” Mr. Black said in a statement. “But it takes more than pretending to change your car tags. Move here, pay taxes here, register and vote in some elections and learn what Georgians have on their minds.”
Piling on additional criticism, he said, “This election is too important for an experiment” and “Trusted experience is the key.”
Mr. Black has scored endorsements from former Gov. Nathan Deal, Mr. Collins and other elected leaders in the state, including Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.
“I bleed Georgia football red, but I’m for Black all the way,” said Mr. McDonald, delivering a dig against Mr. Walker.
Mr. Walker has used social media to fight back.
“I’ve been in the race for barely a week and am already being attacked,” Mr. Walker said in a Twitter post last week. “We shouldn’t be surprised. I LOVE GEORGIA and this country too much to stay out of the fight!!”
Jay Williams, a Republican Party strategist, said Mr. Walker’s initial fundraising haul could be so big that it scares away his rivals.
“If he is running a good, credible campaign, it is going to be very difficult to beat him up and make those hits stick, and [if he raises a lot of money], there is going to be a lot of pressure on his rivals from Republicans to keep their mouths shut,” Mr. Williams said.
Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Mr. Walker would win if the election were held today but, as a political newcomer, still faces plenty of challenges.
“Older folks, people who were 10 years old or older when he played football, they know who Herschel is, and if they are Georgia [football] fans, they think he walked on water,” Mr. Bullock said. “But since then, there are basically two generations of people that have been born since then and over 2 million people who moved into the state who have no ties to Herschel.
“Walker’s popularity may have been the highest the day he announced, and as time goes on, he might make some rookie mistakes,” he said.