As Herschel Walker's controversies mount, some Republicans start to worry

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to supporters during an election night watch party, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. Walker won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Georgia's primary election. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Herschel Walker’s campaign wants to talk about inflation. 

But when Walker generates headlines, it’s usually a new revelation about the Republican Senate nominee not being truthful.

Walker has exaggerated his business and academic record. He’s falsely claimed to have served in law enforcement. The Daily Beast has reported he didn’t disclose the existence of his other children, even to top campaign aides.

Now, Walker is retooling his campaign staff as a growing list of scandals threatens to derail his campaign’s message. 

Walker’s campaign against incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock is one of the most-watched races in the country and key to the Republican Party’s efforts to retake the U.S. Senate. But some Republicans are starting to wonder if the former University of Georgia football star is up for the challenge.

“Everyone acknowledges the problems,” says conservative radio host Erick Erickson. “They’re curled up in the fetal position trying to make sense of it all, cling[ing] to ‘the national environment’s so bad he can get across the finish line.’” 

The party in the White House historically fares poorly during the midterms, and Republicans are anticipating a red wave this fall as President Biden’s approval ratings keep sinking, the pandemic lingers and inflation persists. 

But Erickson is skeptical the national climate will be enough to buoy Walker.

“Candidates matter,” Erickson says. “A lot of people look at the national dynamics and think that matters most. Candidates matter more than a lot of people think.”

Erickson says “suburban, independent voters who did not live in Georgia in the early 1980s when Herschel Walker became a star,” won’t automatically vote for Walker just because he’s the Republican nominee. 

Erickson says Walker’s best shot to win these voters is to invest heavily in advertising and keep off-script moments to a minimum.

He says he offered Walker an hour interview slot on his popular radio program, but unlike the other candidates Erickson invited, Walker’s campaign declined.

“I heard from one of the staffers afterward, they didn’t really want him in a one-hour, uncontrolled environment,” Erickson says.

In the last week, reporters have been blocked from covering two Walker campaign appearances, including a county GOP event at a public park. 

The local party Facebook live-streamed the event, during which Walker made a puzzling comment about enslavement, spread a debunked claim about the origins of the coronavirus and gave a confusing explanation for climate change and air pollution.

“But since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air,” Walker said. “So when China gets our good air, their bad air gotta move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, we’ve got to clean that back up.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has reportedly been working with the campaign to course correct, according to The Washington Post. On Monday, the campaign announced a slate of new hires, including several veteran GOP operatives.

“It’s typical for campaigns to build out at this point in the cycle — especially for a high profile race like ours,” Walker’s communications director, Mallory Blount, told WABE in a statement. “We are happy that so many top-tier political operatives are jumping at the chance to join our campaign to defeat Senator Warnock — since he’s shown he loves Washington more than he loves Georgia.”

Brian Walsh, a former NRSC staffer, says it’s a good sign if the Walker campaign is accepting help. 

Walsh worked at the NRSC during the 2010 and 2012 elections, when Republicans failed to flip the Senate. 

Walsh says Republicans lost five winnable seats during those two cycles. All were candidates who couldn’t stay on message and wouldn’t accept help from the party, he says.

In 2012, for example, Republican Senate nominees Todd Aiken of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana both made head-scratching comments about rape that drew widespread condemnation. Both lost to Democrats, despite running in states inclined to elect Republicans that year.

Christine O’Donnell, a failed 2010 GOP nominee for Senate in Delaware, grabbed headlines talking about “dabbling into witchcraft.”

“So that was an instance where I couldn’t even get a phone number of her campaign manager,” he says. “Almost to a T, the five candidates who lost did not have a good working relationship with the party committee.”

With several months to go before November, Walsh thinks Walker can still get on track.

Polls suggest the election could be very close.

“To the extent that over the next 120 days, the Walker campaign is talking not about the personal issues that have dogged his campaign and can swing back to the policy issues, the direction of the country, they’re going to win,” Walsh says.

If not, the dreary outlook for Democrats nationally might not be enough to carry a candidate so prone to controversy.