Republicans from Georgia to Washington, DC, are searching for a viable candidate to mount a Senate bid in the Peach State next year, fearing that former President Donald Trump’s choice, football great Herschel Walker, would implode if he ran and could cost the GOP a winnable seat.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested to allies that former Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler should take another look at running again, according to three sources familiar with the matter, after their narrow losses in January flipped the Senate to Democratic control.
McConnell, who has privately expressed his deep concerns with Walker’s potential candidacy, met this summer with Loeffler and Perdue. He is also meeting this week with another potential candidate – former Trump national security official Latham Saddler – according to a source familiar with the situation. The source said that McConnell is likely to meet with other candidates as well.
A recent report in the Associated Press detailing Walker’s past, including that he threatened violence against his ex-wife, has only increased fears in GOP circles that his unvetted past would be devastating in a high-stakes election, where control of the Senate is at stake. The AP also found that Walker has greatly exaggerated how much revenue his company – Renaissance Man Food Services – earns and how many people it employs.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a top McConnell ally, seemed skeptical about a Walker candidacy.
“All I know is what I read in the paper,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “I want to win that race, and so I want the best nominee. I don’t know whether he’s it.”
Walker, a Georgia native who currently lives in Texas, has yet to say whether he will run. But Trump’s public pining for his old friend has been enough to freeze some potential candidates from entering the field, even as there are growing alarms about the former Georgia Bulldog running back’s prospective candidacy.
Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Georgia Republican operative, told CNN that while “there’s a lot of excitement among some in the base” about Walker, there’s also “a lot of unknowns” about the political newcomer.
“I think in the last couple of weeks, there have been some things reported in the media that have caused people to take pause,” Tanenblatt said.
Three prominent Georgia consultants – Nick Ayers, Austin Chambers and Paul Bennecke – engaged in informal talks with Walker this summer, according to multiple GOP sources. But all three declined to work on his Senate campaign. Ayers told CNN he’s spoken to several current or potential Senate candidates on a merely advisory basis.
“I’ve spoken to all of them and given them all advice,” said Ayers, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. Ayers added that while he “hit it off” with Walker, he made it clear he would not be working for any Senate candidates.
While Walker is a Georgia football icon, the AP report and lack of a political operation have not inspired confidence across much of the party. Three Republican candidates – Georgia agriculture commissioner Gary Black, construction firm owner Kelvin King, and Saddler – have already announced their campaigns.
When asked if he would drop out of the race if Walker jumps in, Saddler told CNN on Wednesday: “It doesn’t matter who wants to get into this race. It will have zero effect on our campaign and our strategy.”
But Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer and former ambassador to Luxembourg in the Trump administration, said there’s no reason for Walker to jump into the Senate race now, unless the latest reports start to damage the potential candidate’s standing in the state. If Walker’s poll numbers remain steady, Evans said he didn’t see why Walker would make a move before Labor Day.
“I think he’s about to get tested,” said Evans.
Trump has known Walker since at least 1984, when the then-owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals gave his star running back a contract extension. Trump’s allies hope that long friendship could go a long way in helping unify the party after the former President blasted GOP officials like Gov. Brian Kemp for accepting his loss in Georgia last year. In December, Walker tweeted a video supporting Trump’s effort to overturn his loss. Trump responded, “Herschel is speaking the truth!”
Some Trump allies are standing firmly behind Walker, saying that having a celebrity, conservative African-American would amount to an ideal candidate against Warnock, a progressive Democrat and one of three Black senators.
“He’s not the first person to struggle,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has spoken to Walker about a potential run, told CNN last week. “I’m told he spent the last couple days at a military base helping people through PTSD problems. He’s made that sort of his life’s work.”
Asked if he thought he’d still run, the South Carolina Republican said: “I’d be surprised if he didn’t.”
A Walker aide did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Recruiting the former senators
Some Republicans are wondering whether one of the two former Georgia senators, Perdue and Loeffler, would reconsider a campaign. Loeffler, whom Warnock defeated by 2 points in January, would likely run for the seat again if Walker doesn’t, according to a person familiar with her thinking.
After meeting with McConnell in June, Loeffler told CNN, “I haven’t ruled it out.”
Perdue, however, ruled out the prospect in February, a week after filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
Many Georgia Republican strategists privately say they would prefer Perdue, who lost his reelection bid to Democrat Jon Ossoff by about a point in January, to run.
At a dinner for Republican donors in Washington last month, Perdue indicated he had nothing to say about whether he would launch another Senate campaign.
The donors responded to Perdue’s non-announcement with some light-hearted booing, according to two people familiar with the dinner, which was organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and attended by McConnell and NRSC chairman and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
Scott has said he’s neutral in Senate primaries with no GOP incumbents. When asked if he were concerned by Walker in any way, Scott said, “I mean, he’s not in the race.”
“I’ve talked to him,” Scott added. “I tell everybody the same thing. If you’re going to get in, you have to be ready to do everything. … You got to go raise money, you got to go to debates, you got to do all these things.”
Walker biding his time
Walker recently told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he would make an announcement “on my timetable.” But some Georgia Republicans want Walker to make a decision – now – in order to give himself or the other candidates the time to build the strongest possible campaign against Warnock, who already has a $10.5-million war chest.
“If Herschel Walker is committed to the Republican Party, he needs to get out and announce he’s running, or he needs to announce he’s not, and let the other candidates be given a chance to get support from others that may be holding back, waiting on him,” said Tanenblatt.
Some Senate candidates have impressed Republicans in the state, particularly Saddler, a 38 year-old banking executive and veteran Navy SEAL, who raised more than $1.4 million in the second quarter of the year, more than Black and King combined.
In an interview with CNN, Saddler said that Georgians “miss the America First policy agenda.” He said two of the top things he hears on the campaign trail is a struggle to find workers and a lack of confidence in elections. Saddler said he supports a Fulton County audit and would not say whether Trump or Joe Biden won the 2020 election despite multiple recounts showing Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in the state.
“I’m still waiting to see what is surfacing from these audits and investigations on that front,” said Saddler. “Once all the information is out there, I look forward to sharing my opinion on it.”
Saddler declined to confirm he’d meet with McConnell this week, but acknowledged he would be in Washington for “a number of meetings.” The GOP leader also declined to comment about his views on the Georgia race.
Other Republicans are watching Walker closely.
Rep. Buddy Carter, a Georgia Republican who has previously said he would run for the Senate seat if Walker passes on a bid, dismissed the AP report about the Heisman Trophy-winner’s past.
“Herschel is fine. I think Herschel is going to run, and I know he’s going to win,” Carter said. “I don’t think there’s anything new [that] came out that hasn’t already been out there. Herschel is a strong person.”
At least one candidate, Commissioner Black, is taking Walker head-on.
Black, who has won statewide races since 2010, questioned whether Walker would actually run in a digital ad released Monday. The ad opens with a clip from a cryptic June video Walker posted on social media that shows him revving the engine of a car with a Georgia license plate. Walker, who retired from the Dallas Cowboys in 1997, currently lives in Texas.
In the US Capitol on Wednesday, Warnock was bullish about his chances next year.
“I think once I have an opponent from the other side, I’ll be prepared to defeat whoever they put up,” Warnock told CNN.
As for the damaging reports about Walker’s past, Warnock said: “I haven’t seen it.”