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ATLANTA — The newly blue state of Georgia could be getting a wave of Bulldog red.
Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia legend, could run for U.S. Senate next year on the Republican ticket. And if he does, he’d have the formidable duo of his own illustrious legacy and a motivated, vengeful former President Donald Trump clearing a path for him.
Walker, 59, led the Georgia Bulldogs to their most recent national championship in 1980 as a freshman. He won the Heisman two years later and dominated college football so thoroughly that his name still ranks atop most best-ever lists. He’s wound through a range of pursuits since his days in Athens — NFL player, Olympic bobsledder, MMA fighter — but for many Georgians, he’ll always be a Bulldog.
Georgia’s 2022 Senate race will be a crucial one, meaning that anyone who runs for office against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock will instantly become a national figure. Warnock recently won the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson in 2019, so his seat is up for election next year, rather than the customary six years.
The state’s changing demographics make it a compelling political story. Georgia voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election for just the second time since 1964, handing Joe Biden many of the key electoral votes he needed to win the presidency. Nine weeks later, both Senate runoff races went to the Democratic challengers, not the Republican incumbents, flipping control of the Senate to Democrats and completely changing the balance of power in Washington.
The key figure in all three election scenarios, as well as the forthcoming 2022 election: Donald Trump. Urban and suburban regions of Georgia turned sharply against Trump in 2020, helping to seal his fate in the state. Trump continued to contest the election results in Georgia — to date he still has not acknowledged that he lost the state — and his focus on discredited claims of electoral fraud likely helped cost Republicans the Senate. His support of Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue was half-hearted at best; he didn’t even show up in the state to campaign until the night before the election.
That’s not the case now. Trump has made it one of his missions to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Republicans whom he deemed insufficiently loyal for failing to help deliver the state to him. He’s taking a special interest in bending the state to his will … and that’s where Walker enters the picture.
Walker and Trump have a relationship dating back nearly 40 years. Trump bought the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, in part because Walker, who had turned pro after his junior year, was already on the roster. Walker was one of the few celebrities not to disavow Trump when the real estate mogul took a hard right turn into politics, and Trump prizes and rewards that kind of loyalty.
During his administration, Trump named Walker to his Council on Sports. More recently, Trump turned a far brighter spotlight on Walker. Stripped of his Twitter account in January, Trump now communicates largely via emailed press release, and on March 10, he dropped a strong suggestion:
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Trump wrote. “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!”
Walker has not yet indicated he would run, but on Fox News this past Sunday indicated he and his family were giving it deep consideration.
“I'm very honored that they would consider me running for the Senate,” Walker told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo. “My family, we’re still going through this process of praying and really considering it. And at the same time, I take it very serious.”
The Walker statement was one of a near-constant stream of press releases from the former president, some solemn, some angry, some apparently designed just to fluster his political enemies. But to assume this was an off-the-cuff remark by Trump to get attention would be a mistake. From a pure electability perspective, it would be difficult for Georgia Republicans to envision a more appealing candidate than the Bulldog legend.
“He checks a lot of boxes,” Georgia political strategist Fred Hicks told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a legend in the state of Georgia. He has instant 100 percent name recognition. He passes the Republican purity test. He’s as close to a shoo-in to be the [Republican] nominee as possible.”
“He has not been super active politically,” Republican strategist Amy Koch told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not like someone like LeBron [James], who’s always involved [politically] on the side. In a way, Herschel is a blank slate. He’s a big name that can raise a lot of money.”
Walker’s celebrity in and of itself is a formidable weapon. As Trump himself demonstrated in 2016, celebrity alone is enough to get an outsize share of the public’s attention; following that up with a fundraising and messaging operation gives star candidates a huge advantage over career politicians. Tommy Tuberville, a fair-to-middling coach at Auburn, won election to the U.S. Senate in Alabama this way, and Tuberville’s star power in Alabama isn’t anywhere close to Walker’s in Georgia.
“The beautiful thing for athletes is that they come with so much name ID built in, an audience that isn’t political,” Koch said. “They come with devout fans, fans that are excited, middle-of-the-road folks. That’s a huge advantage.”
Walker has been an outspoken supporter of Trump and Republican principles for years. In his most recent Fox News interview, Walker hit on hot-button issues like protesting athletes, whom he doesn’t believe should be on the U.S. Olympic team, as well as Major League Baseball moving its All-Star Game out of Atlanta over the election law. Walker supports the law’s mandate requiring more comprehensive identification to vote.
“Having an ID is a basic thing you’ve got to have,” Walker said on Fox News. “For people to continue to talk about this idea is sort of appalling. Why are they not helping people to get an ID? That’s a basic thing people need to survive.” That’s a message that resonates well with Republican audiences.
The fact that Walker is a Black Republican also factors into calculations about his political viability. Georgia is currently enmeshed in a political crisis over its new election law, drafted by state Republican legislators immediately after Trump’s loss and signed into law by Kemp soon after the Senate runoffs.
Critics of the bill charge that it unfairly targets minorities and heavily Democratic areas of the state, imposing additional voting restrictions on minority communities. Several of Georgia’s most powerful corporations, including Delta and Coca-Cola, have criticized the legislation, and Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta in direct response to the law. Running Walker on a Republican ticket could blunt the most obvious race-based criticisms of Georgia’s GOP officials.
Trump’s status in Georgia, where he just lost three consecutive elections, will be a key factor in Walker’s success. Walker will gain the votes of a significant percentage of the Georgia electorate simply by running with an (R) next to his name, and he’ll gain even more who remember him running over hapless Tennessee and Florida defenders.
Will that be enough to defeat Warnock, who has a formidable political machine of his own? Put simply: if Walker is going to win, he’ll need to persuade voters who are deciding whether they love Herschel more than they hate Trump.
“Is he going to have his own ideas, or is he going to just be a Trump proxy?” Hicks said. “That didn’t work too well for Loeffler or Perdue. Trumpism is 1-for-4 in Georgia.”
Walker isn’t as skilled a communicator on the stump as Warnock, but in the new dynamics of politics, he doesn’t need to be. He can give interviews only to friendly outlets, he can sidestep debates. He doesn’t have to articulate detailed policy positions; he just needs to be Herschel Walker. It was enough for Tuberville last fall, and it very well could be enough for Walker to get onto the ballot next November … if not necessarily win.
“The 2021 election showed that you have to do more than just talk in sound bites,” Hicks said. “Both [the Republican Senate candidates] ran with sound bites but didn’t articulate any real policies. Being a celebrity will get him out of the primary, but for the general election, he’ll have to give more and do more. Celebrity will get him 48, 49 percent. But to get to that 50 percent-plus-one in the general, he’ll have to be more than just a celebrity name.”
There’s reason to believe Walker will make a decision relatively soon. Walker is currently a Texas resident — he played for Dallas before being dealt to Minnesota in a blockbuster trade that helped create the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s — and he’d need to re-establish residency in Georgia to run.
Moreover, an early declaration of candidacy, backed by Trump, could go a long way toward clearing out the field of possible competition from the right. Much like a cornerback facing Walker alone in the open field, potential Republican contenders in Georgia may well make a business decision not to run and collide headlong with the full weight of the Trump machine.
Whether or not he runs, Walker has already learned from politicians the wisdom of appealing to a higher power, and from Trump the art of leaving them wanting more.
“Herschel Walker believes in God,” Walker said on Sunday. “I believe in this country. I believe in the people. And I’m going to fight for the people of Georgia if I run, so just stay tuned. And I tell you what, it’s going to be exciting.”
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.