How Is Herschel Walker Still in This?
Mary Harris: So, Greg, when was the first time you heard the name Herschel Walker?
Speaker 2: As far back as I can remember, because he’s not just an athlete or even really a legend. I mean, he’s sort of this UGA sports hero icon.
Mary Harris: University of Georgia.
Speaker 2: Yeah. University of Georgia. I look at the.
Speaker 3: He’s outside and he may.
Speaker 2: And I grew up with two parents who really didn’t care about college football. But I still grew up hearing stories about Herschel Walker friends who had posters of him on the walls. To this day, I’ve got friends who are hardcore Democrats whose dogs are named Herschel Walker or whose garage codes are 3434 after his number. So that kind of gives you a glimpse of just what a big deal he is in Georgia.
Mary Harris: Greg Bluestein is the guy I call up to talk Georgia politics. He’s a reporter over at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And not to harp on the whole legendary sports figure thing. But Gregg’s right that Herschel Walker’s athletic record is really impressive. It’s not just that he’s got a Heisman Trophy. He also competed on the Olympic bobsledding team. Were you surprised when Herschel Walker switched over to politics?
Speaker 2: Not terribly surprised, only because oftentimes in the South, you know, college football figures do get named. Mark Richt was was floated as a he was the Georgia’s former football coach. He was floated as a candidate for governor. Tommy Tuberville, obviously, in Alabama, is now a U.S. senator. And so it wasn’t terribly surprising to see his name floated, but it was definitely more of a surprise to see him actually jump in the race.
Mary Harris: Yeah. Have all of his scandals surprised you?
Speaker 2: You know, the extent of the scandal. Sure. Right. But we always knew. And even when he got in the race, I wrote something to the effect of, you know, the unknowns are what could really hamper his campaign.
Mary Harris: But they were known unknowns. It sounds like you’re saying.
Speaker 2: They were known unknowns.
Mary Harris: Herschel Walker’s history of violent and erratic behavior is almost as well-known as his speed on the football field. His ex-wife accused him of holding a gun to her head, choking her. Walker has written a book on what he calls his dissociative identity disorder. Some people call that multiple personality disorder.
Speaker 2: So there is a lot of sort of red flags already about his propensity to towards falsehoods, but not to the extent that we’ve seen now.
Mary Harris: Now, just weeks before the midterm election, Herschel Walker is fighting off allegations he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion, even sent her a get well card, though publicly, he claims abortion shouldn’t be available to anyone under any circumstances. And all this is playing out in one of the most watched Senate races in the country. For context, if Herschel Walker wins this race, the polling site FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 60% chance of retaking the Senate completely. But if Herschel Walker loses there, prediction flips and Democrats suddenly have an 89% chance of keeping the chamber. Greg says for Herschel Walker himself, the calculus is more complicated.
Speaker 2: You know, even if he wins, he is no longer the icon that he once was in Georgia.
Mary Harris: Huh? Yeah. Your friends are gonna be changing their garage coats or whatever.
Speaker 2: Too late to change their their dog’s name, though.
Mary Harris: Today on the show, the story of how a single Senate race in Georgia reached this make or break point. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.
Mary Harris: I want to start the story of the Senate race in Georgia two years back, not with Herschel Walker, but with Reverend Raphael Warnock, the Democrat he is running against. Because my listeners probably remember that Warnock was elected in a runoff in that his election tipped the Senate to the Democrats. But I’m wondering if you can explain from a Georgian perspective what made this election such a big deal.
Speaker 2: Yeah, well, first it was part of two elections, right? And so that was unique in the first place because we had the regular, you know, every six year election between David Perdue and Jon Ossoff. But then you add to that Johnny Isakson, the late and legendary U.S. senator who had stepped down a couple of years early because he was battling with with Parkinson’s disease. That opened up a special election for the seat that Reverend Warnock ran for.
Mary Harris: So the whole state was in play.
Speaker 2: The whole state was in play. And then even at the time, I mean, my story when Johnny Isakson stepped down was this could, you know, give giving Georgia dual Senate races that could decide control of the U.S. Senate, which is what happened. Senator Warnock had never run for public office before. He was the Reverend of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Pulpit. So it’s a historic and legendary Baptist church, which is very well known in Atlanta civic community and to many in the in political circles. But outside of that, you know, to your average Georgian, he was not a household name whatsoever. He would go down to campaign events in rural Georgia and there’d be longer lines to greet the local mayor or to see the county commissioner than to see who this Warnock guy was.
Mary Harris: Hmm. Warnock is also the first black man to represent Georgia in the Senate, right?
Speaker 2: Yes.
Mary Harris: How did that impact how he was seen in the state? Because I look at Raphael Warnock and I see a senator who is self-consciously black in a way that’s really interesting. Like his first speech on the floor of the Senate was about voting rights. He’s he’s really putting himself out there.
Speaker 2: You’re exactly right. He’s one of only about ten black senators in the nation’s history and the first in Georgia and only one of the few in the south. And he’s also leaned into issues that are of significant importance to the African-American community. He’s been arrested for protesting the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. He has, you know, talked about affordable housing and homelessness and economic equity and, as you mentioned, voting rights. He gave John Lewis his eulogy in the middle of the 2020 campaign, talking about all those issues that John Lewis, who is one of his parishioners, you know, had championed for Republicans.
Mary Harris: Was this Senate election a warning of sorts? And if it was, what were they hearing in this warning?
Speaker 2: 2020 was I guess it was the what’s what’s what’s worse than a wakeup call. Alarm bell. I mean, it was it was the moment things things changed in Georgia because Democrats who had long said, hey, we’re on the cusp. We’re on the cusp, we’re on the cusp of victory, could actually say, hey, we got victory. We we flipped the presidential race for the first time since 92, and we won these two US Senate seats that gave Democrats control of the of the chamber.
Mary Harris: Greg says Herschel Walker wasn’t exactly the local Republican Party’s idea of a good Senate candidate. But in early 2021, as he was considering running, Walker got a crucial assist from an old friend, Donald Trump.
Speaker 2: Donald Trump sends out one of his he had been forbidden from Twitter at the time of his daughter’s, you know, email blasts. And he sent out an email blast saying that if Herschel Walker ran for U.S. Senate, he would be unstoppable in Georgia.
Mary Harris: It’s like he manifested it.
Speaker 2: Yeah, And I mean, from what I’m told by Herschel’s camp and even the Herschel himself, he was already thinking of it. So it wasn’t sort of, you know, forced into that race. And at the time, Donald Trump’s endorsement in Georgia was a golden ticket. And so that froze the field. All these other Republicans who were thinking about running, who some of them had even created ads and already started hiring staff and creating the bases of campaign committees. They basically either froze their plans or abandoned them altogether.
Mary Harris: So they heard their words Herschel Walker, and they were like, well, I’m not going to run against him.
Speaker 2: Yeah. Herschel Walker And you add to that Trump’s, you know, Trump’s blessing. It makes it real hard. I mean, think about it. I actually I do think that Herschel Walker could have easily won the Republican nomination with or without Trump, just based on that name recognition alone. And as long as he didn’t flame out during a campaign, I felt like he could do it. That’s just how how legendary, how high of a status he has. I mean, your one Republican operative said he’s basically the pope in Georgia.
Mary Harris: Part of the reason why I think Herschel Walker has seemed like an unconventional choice to run for Senate is that he’s been so straightforward and transparent about all kinds of struggles in his life when it comes to abuse, his mental health. He wrote a whole book about having dissociative identity disorder. An ex-wife accused him of abuse years and years ago. Still does. I wonder if in some ways, though, political operatives looked at all that and thought maybe Herschel Walker has inoculated himself from scandal.
Speaker 2: That was the hope, right? That because he wrote this book about 14 years ago, that it would cushion himself from any attacks. Hey, you know, this violent behavior happened before I got treatment. These bizarre statements came from before I got the treatment. His ex-wife’s really raw, emotional account about how he pointed a gun at her and choked her came before he got treatment. The issue that he faces now, though, is, yeah, he keeps on pointing back to the book, but he doesn’t necessarily confront a lot of the issues head on.
Mary Harris: Well, he says he was saved by the grace of God. Right. I guess that’s the that’s the dealing with it.
Speaker 2: That’s kind of the overall message, right? He’s saved. He’s been redeemed, but he hasn’t got a full interview accounting for what you ask him about on the campaign trail. For instance, he kind of flips back. What about Warnock? What about Senator Murdoch? Right. And meanwhile, you can’t turn on a TV in Georgia without hearing Herschel Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, in a I think it was back in 2009. But footage from an interview more than a decade ago talking about those violent accusations.
Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, over the summer is when I first began to hear about these fresh scandals involving Herschel Walker. And at first, The Daily Beast was reporting that Walker had what they were calling secret children, children he had never acknowledged before. But then earlier this month, The Daily Beast again reported about an abortion that Herschel Walker allegedly paid for for an ex-girlfriend. And while you may have thought you knew already about some kind of hypocrisy when it came to abortion, it is striking that in the wake of the Dobbs decision. Herschel Walker said. I’m against abortion with zero exceptions for rape, incest, saving someone’s life. And yet we have this ex-girlfriend saying, by the way, you paid for my abortion. And not just that, but. Herschel Walker son, Christian Walker, came out against his father in a way that we haven’t seen before.
Speaker 2: Yeah, that really crystallized the story, right? Which, by the way, Herschel Walker says it’s flat out lie. He’s he’s. He’s threatened to file a defamation lawsuit. Last week, it still hasn’t been filed. But it’s one thing for this report about basically hypocrisy. What you said. You know, Herschel Walker said here he supports 100% total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or in the life of the mothers at stake. And here we have a woman whose accounts have been verified by multiple media outlets at this point saying that not only did Herschel Walker pay for her 29 abortion, but he also urged her to have a second abortion, that she refused.
Mary Harris: And she now has a child with Herschel Walker.
Speaker 2: Exactly. But then you add to that Christian Walker, who is this 23 year old son of Herschel and a social media figure in his own right, has hundreds of thousands of followers. He’s sort of a conservative brand out there. And in the wake of this Daily Beast report, he had a very emotional, very raw video that he posted on Twitter.
Speaker 4: I stayed silent as the atrocities committed against my mom were downplayed. I stayed silent when it came out that my father, Herschel Walker, had all these random kids across the country, none of whom he raised.
Speaker 2: Talking about how he urged his father not to run, how he warned him that uncomfortable parts of his past would would re-emerge and embarrass him. And the family said he was making a mockery out of himself with the run and said that that Herschel Walker threatened violence against him and his mother multiple times. They had a move six times.
Speaker 4: Lie after lie after lie. The abortion card dropped yesterday. It’s literally his handwriting in the car. They say they have receipts. Whatever he gets on Twitter, he lies about it. Okay, I’m done. Done. Everything has been a lie.
Speaker 2: So that, to me, made this even bigger story that really resonated with voters. It’s going to be hard to find many voters who haven’t at least heard something about this over the past week.
Mary Harris: How are voters responding when you go out to events with Herschel Walker?
Speaker 2: There’s three buckets of voters, by and large, on the GOP side. There are those who think this is all fake news. There are those who believe them and say it doesn’t change their calculus, who say that, look, you know, they didn’t like Herschel Walker. They weren’t that comfortable with him to begin with as a candidate. But they’re going to support him because it means voting for a Republican controlled Senate. And the third group is this narrow band of split ticket voters that we saw long before these Daily Beast reports. Our latest poll indicates a significant number of voters plan to split their ticket between both parties. And this this is the telling number. About 9% of backers of Republican Governor Brian Kemp say they’re going to support Reverend Warnock. Another 5% say they’ll vote for the libertarian chase. Oliver. That’s a huge that’s a huge, significant number that could really change the dynamic here in Georgia. That could be a game changer.
Mary Harris: It’s been interesting to me to watch Republicans really line up behind Herschel Walker because this abortion scandal really is the height of hypocrisy. I am concerned about one thing and one thing only at this point. So I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate. Is this simply because there’s no mechanism to replace Herschel Walker on the ballot this late in the game?
Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, you’d have to have Herschel Walker support for that. And he is he’s a fighter, right? He is a competitor. This this he’s an athlete. And so he and his advisors essentially said there’s no chance he would ever even back out before this. But now we’re we’re less than a month away from the election and there’s no mechanism to replace him on the ballot. The ballots have been, you know, mailed out to voters who requested absentee ballot forms. So it is far too late. Republicans in the in the gambling parlance, are not committed.
Mary Harris: After the break, the surprising strategy from Senator Warnock that might just unlock those deciding votes.
Mary Harris: At the same time, Herschel Walker has been fighting off attacks on his credibility. He has been urging the media and prospective voters to look into his competitors past. Right wing media has been playing body cam video from 2020. It seems to show what happened when police were called to mediate between Reverend Warnock and his ex. I’ve tried to keep the way that he acts under wraps for a long time and today he crossed the line.
Speaker 4: So that is what is going on here.
Mary Harris: And he is a great actor.
Speaker 4: He is phenomenal at putting on a really good show.
Mary Harris: In this tape, Warnock’s ex tells Atlanta police officers that the now senator ran over her foot with his car during an argument outside her townhouse. She also describes him as someone who is really good at putting on a show. Warnock was not charged with a crime here and medical officials didn’t find any visible signs of injury to the foot. Greg Bluestein says Warnock told him that his ex’s allegations just didn’t happen. And in his current campaign, Greg says Reverend Warnock seems loathe to use details of Herschel Walker personal life against him.
Speaker 2: I was with Senator Warnock on a monday night about a week ago from this taping when the news broke, and when I asked him the question, Hey, what are you what’s your take on The Daily Beast report? He basically said, look, I’m not going to get into that. I’m going to focus on my stance on abortion. And frankly, he’s continued to do that. You know, he’s trying to keep the base energized, but he’s going after those swing voters, after those Walker skeptics who are showing up in data and in polls long before these Daily Beast stories.
Speaker 2: And so that’s why I’m not convinced that The Daily Beast stories will have this image, you know, this instant effect, because there was already a huge number of Republicans and independents who were very, very squeamish about Herschel Walker. I mean, I was going door knocking with some Republican canvassers a few weeks ago for a story I was writing in the second house we hit. You know, the canvasser said, oh, they were reading the script, and we assume you’re a reliable Republican voter. We assume you’ll be voting GOP down the ticket. And the guy stopped them right there and says, I’ll be voting Republican down the ticket for everyone but Herschel Walker I just can’t vote for the guy.
Mary Harris: Wow. Did he say why.
Speaker 2: He said that Herschel Walker was unfit for office?
Mary Harris: So Warnock’s argument is hitting.
Speaker 2: Yeah. Warnock’s arguments hitting. But Warnock strategy is really interesting because he’s going after these swing voters in a very pronounced way. I mean, he on the campaign trail, he talks more about Ted Cruz and Tommy Tuberville working with them on on bipartisan legislation than he does about working with Joe Biden. Ted Cruz Yeah, he it’s funny because he always gets a gasp from the audience sometimes. What we asked me was, what surprised you the most since you’ve been in the Senate? Well, one of the things one of the things that surprised me is something called the warm up Cruz amendment.
Speaker 3: Which I didn’t go to.
Speaker 2: Cruz. I mean, Ted Cruz, it is usually a liberal audience. And he’s talking to, you know, let’s say the other day it was African-American voters. And when he said, you know, I work with Ted Cruz on this piece and people literally got what Ted Cruz. And because I know I know what you’re thinking, but Ted Cruz wanted, you know, is proposing a highway extension from Texas to Georgia. And I figured it made sense for Georgians and it helped our military bases because it would go by a number of military installations. And that’s his argument, basically, that he’ll he’ll work with whoever it takes, if it’s good for Georgia. Colleagues erupted in laughter. They couldn’t believe it, but they passed unanimously.
Mary Harris: With the margins of victory so tight in Georgia, my understanding is that there’s a pretty significant chance this race goes to a runoff. Is that what your experts are telling you, too?
Speaker 2: Yeah, We’ve seen very few polls that show either of the candidates above the 50% mark, which is what you need to get to avoid a runoff. And you might see even more of that trend because usually a Libertarian candidate in Georgia, a third party candidate, might get one or 2% of the vote. But with so many protest voters out there, so many Republicans who signaled in polls that they just can’t support Herschel Walker but might be unwilling to ever vote for a Democrat. Right. They might increasingly go towards either skipping the ballot altogether or they might vote for a libertarian, which will increase the likelihood of a runoff.
Mary Harris: How would a runoff change the dynamics of this race, other than you and I will be getting on the phone about it again maybe sometime soon?
Speaker 2: Yeah. Well, if we do see a runoff, it’s a different ballgame and we’re just not sure what that would mean if Senate control is at stake again, like it was in 2020, 2021 with our last runoff. Then you see hundreds of millions of dollars being spent. It resets the race. The Republican message will to Walker skeptics will basically be hold your nose and vote for him because you’re voting against Joe Biden. You’re voting against Democratic control of the Senate. But if it’s four seat 52, you know, it could be lower turnout there. They’ll still be a ton of money spent in Georgia, but not nearly the importance of a Senate controlled deciding seat. So I think all bets are off.
Speaker 2: But I definitely think the race essentially resets and that Herschel Walker can if he does make it to a runoff, you can say, hey, they threw everything they had at me and they still, you know, and the Democrat didn’t win. And certainly Warnock staff and his is allies have been preparing for a runoff for for a long time now for preparing for that possibility there. Of course, everyone’s going to go for the outright win. But with a race this close, they can’t not have at least one eye down the road.
Mary Harris: Greg Bluestein. I am always so grateful to have you on our show. Thanks for taking the time.
Speaker 2: Thank you for having me. It was a blast.
Mary Harris: Greg Bluestein is a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He also wrote the book Flipped How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power. And that’s our show. If you’re a fan of what we’re doing here, what next? The best way to support us is to join Slate Plus. That’s our membership program. So going over to Slate.com slash, what next? Plus and sign up. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad, and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips and Jared Downing. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back in this feed tomorrow. Catch you then.