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Herschel Walker has given his opponent, Raphael Warnock, a lead in Georgia’s Senate contest, and whether he can come from behind depends on whether the former football star can execute at a higher level than he has done so far.
Walker does have political winds at his back. November is likely to be a national wave election for Republicans around the country, with President Biden’s unpopularity and rising inflation making it hard for Democrats to win any competitive race. And Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is polling ahead of Democrat Stacey Abrams in his reelection bid, which should help other GOP candidates on the ballot.
But several Georgia Republicans told Yahoo News that Walker is currently on a path to defeat if he does not make a sustained course correction, as he is trying to do this week.
“We have this little sliver of our electorate that is willing to choose by individual rather than party,” Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant active in Georgia politics, said. This voter bloc was “decisive” in the 2021 Senate runoffs that handed control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats, he said.
“Herschel has to make inroads with that group,” Robinson said.
A point that should concern Walker’s campaign is this: That gap between Kemp and Walker was recorded two months ago. And since then, Walker’s competence and character have taken big hits.
In June, the Daily Beast reported that Walker — who divorced his wife in 2002 — has a 10-year-old child that he had not previously disclosed. The same publication then reported that Walker had originally lied to his own campaign advisers about the child, and that he had two other children whom he had never publicly acknowledged. The article revealed that some of Walker’s own campaign staff did not trust him to tell them the truth.
In addition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in June that Walker has demonstrated a habit of falsely claiming that he worked in law enforcement. Over the course of years, he told people he “worked for law enforcement,” was an “agent” at FBI headquarters in Quantico, had “been in criminal justice all my life” and made other untrue statements.
And while Walker has largely avoided talking to reporters, he put his foot in his mouth when he did make public comments. In May, after a shooter massacred 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, school, Walker appeared on Fox News and called for "a department that can look at young men, that's looking at women, that's looking at social media."
Then, earlier this month, he gave an incomprehensible explanation of climate change and air pollutants. “Our good air decided to float over to China's bad air, so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then now we got to clean that back up,” he said.
Walker’s integrity and competence were already a big question mark before the May 24 primary. Reports emerged last summer that he had repeatedly threatened the life of his ex-wife, including by holding a pistol to her head and a razor blade to her throat; that he had demonstrated unpredictable behavior with business colleagues; and that he had embellished his biography.
In April, CNN revealed that Walker has more than once claimed he graduated in the top 1% of his class at the University of Georgia. In fact, he never even graduated at all.
Walker’s fumbling performance as a candidate since the primary has only heightened the focus on the question of whether he is qualified for the job of U.S. senator. His ties to a group that defrauded military veterans also continue to raise questions.
Mike Hassinger, another Georgia Republican consultant, said he thinks there are between 125,000 and 150,000 voters “who value integrity and competence” over partisanship or Trump support.
That number is potentially decisive. Warnock won his runoff matchup last year against Republican Kelly Loeffler by just over 93,000 votes.
While Walker has been stumbling on the campaign trail, Warnock has been disciplined, promoting his efforts to reduce the price of insulin, to provide housing for veterans and to stop banks from charging overdraft fees.
The Republican Party has begun an attempted reboot of Walker’s campaign. National Republican consultants were brought in to augment the Georgia-based operation, headed by Scott Paradise.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is from Georgia, has spoken with Walker a few times to stress the importance of a disciplined, policy-heavy stump speech, Robinson told Yahoo News. Gingrich did not respond to a request for comment.
The Walker reset attempt began in earnest on Tuesday during a campaign event in southeast Georgia, where the candidate stayed on message and avoided making the kind of exaggerations about his business dealings that he’s made in the past.
On Wednesday, he campaigned in Athens, Ga., and then did something he hasn’t done much of previously: field questions from reporters. A press aide interjected only once.
Walker was relentless in turning almost every question back to attacks on Warnock, the incumbent Democrat, for failing to improve the economy, rising inflation, food prices and public safety.
“People are saying they want something different,” Walker told reporters.
He avoided questions about whether he would vote against a bill to enshrine same-sex marriage in law, and about his recent comments indicating support for a total ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
Walker also continued to give credence to baseless claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. When asked if Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020, Walker said, “I don't know. Did he? That's a good question. You need to ask my opponent that: Did he win fair and square? I have no clue.”
Big picture, a more disciplined approach is the only way Walker can regain ground, multiple Republicans told Yahoo News.
“It's abundantly clear that just running on a bio, and on fame and personality, is just not going to work,” said one Georgia Republican who has worked on statewide campaigns in the past few years. “The national mood bodes well for Walker, but if he can't hang that albatross around the neck of the Democrats, then he can't win.”
For their part, Georgia Democratic leaders don’t believe Walker can stay on message enough to alter the public perception that he is simply unprepared for the job. “A reset constitutes a change,” said one Democratic Party leader. “He’s established a clear pattern of lying. Walker has not told Georgians his plans or solutions to change.”
Voters have “lost confidence” in Walker, the Republican operative told Yahoo News, and he needs to produce more policy-heavy proposals and show Georgians a level of seriousness about what he plans to do. And he has to get closer to Kemp, the governor.
The reversal of fortunes between Kemp and Walker has been jarring. A few months ago, most political observers assumed Walker was the one with a head of steam, and Kemp was endangered because Trump was furiously attacking him as a Republican in name only.
Trump made Kemp one of his top targets for defeat in the 2022 primaries because the governor had refused to go along with the former president’s attempt in 2020 to overturn election results. Trump even recruited former Sen. David Perdue to take Kemp on.
Meanwhile, Walker is a household name in Georgia, where he became a football icon as a Heisman Trophy-winning University of Georgia running back.
But Kemp, who rarely responded to Trump’s attacks and instead touted his policy accomplishments, trounced Perdue by a huge margin, 78% to 22%. Kemp now leads the Democratic challenger, Abrams, by an average of around 5 points in the RealClearPolitics polling tracker.
Walker won his primary in convincing fashion as well, but with 68% of the vote, and with 85,000 fewer votes than Kemp received, in a field of six candidates. Walker now trails Warnock in polling by an average of just under 3 points.
“Herschel was always supposed to win in a landslide. It was Kemp who was supposed to be in trouble, because Trump was against him and actively bashing him,” Robinson said.
Walker would benefit now from joint appearances with Kemp, but that relationship may be on ice.
During the primary, Walker appeared at a Trump rally in Georgia, where the former president said it was “OK with me” if Abrams beat Kemp in the upcoming election and called Kemp a “disastrous” governor.
And Walker’s top Georgia campaign advisers both worked for Kemp’s Republican opponent in 2018.
When Walker was asked Wednesday if he’ll campaign with statewide candidates like Kemp, he made a vague comment about it and then returned to launching attacks on Warnock.
The Warnock campaign continues to hammer Walker’s reluctance to agree to even one debate. “To be clear, Herschel Walker still isn’t committing to debates,” Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Rev. Warnock believes that debates are a critical opportunity for Georgians to see the clear choice they have between him and Walker in this important election.”
Walker was asked about debates on Wednesday and said he’d be “ready to go” when an agreement was reached between the campaigns. But there is no deal as of now, and on Thursday his campaign released a statement saying that “any debate we agree to must have a fair and equitable format and unbiased moderator.”
Walker may have a new group of advisers working to shore him up, but he will probably have to perform in public, in front of skeptical audiences and possibly in debates with Warnock, to win back Georgia voters who have come to see him as a liability.
“Current polling shows Warnock with a slight lead,” Robinson said. “But if Herschel goes into Election Day within the margin of error and throughout the early voting period, the environmental forces could be enough to get him over the top.
“He has a good team around him. At some juncture, the candidate must go out and execute,” he said. “An athlete like Herschel Walker knows that.”