ATLANTA — Football legend Herschel Walker had just finished cruising to an easy primary win in Georgia’s Senate race Tuesday night when Democrats let him know the easy campaigning is over.
In a hostile welcome to the general election, the Democratic Party of Georgia released a web video featuring a montage of TV news clips and torn-from-the-headlines controversies about Walker’s past and present — from campaign finance issues to his questioning of evolution to exaggerations about his education to questionable health products and a dubious mist he promoted as a Covid cure.
"Georgians deserve a senator who is up for the job," reads the on-screen text. "Herschel Walker has proven he’s not."
Running 1 minute and 18 seconds, the web ad doesn’t even touch the issues of domestic violence that surfaced during the primary.
But Democrats promise those hits are coming as part of a deluge of attack ads to help Sen. Raphael Warnock survive what’s shaping up to be a tough election year for Democrats.
Walker’s campaign and supporters are bracing for it and say they stand ready to unload on Warnock with whatever it takes, a pledge that could make the swing-state contest — which could decide the balance of power in the evenly divided Senate — cost $150 million to $200 million, according to estimates from Democratic and Republican consultants familiar with the race.
Walker, for his part, is already running an anti-Warnock ad on digital and connected TVs.
Ever since Walker entered the Senate race at the behest of former President Donald Trump and earned the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., few doubted he would win the GOP primary. And as the heavy front-runner, he stuck mainly to friendly interviews with conservative media while avoiding debates with his rivals.
His cash-strapped Republican opponents sought to woo voters by arguing — in vain, it turned out — that Warnock and his well-funded Democratic backers would have the resources to dent Walker's general election prospects. The opening salvo from the state Democratic Party is a preview of the kind of advertising blitz it is expected to deploy to define him beyond the positive impression voters have of Walker, the star running back who powered the University of Georgia Bulldogs to a 1980 national title.
"It’s a whole different league Walker’s playing in now," said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Walker’s top GOP opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who released a 2-minute web ad in March bashing Walker and imploring Republicans to "imagine what Democrats would do to Herschel Walker if he becomes the Republican nominee."
"Herschel is like Wile E. Coyote after he runs off a cliff chasing the Road Runner," McGlagan added. "We are at that moment when he looks at the camera and realizes he’s about to plunge 800 feet to the bottom. Beep, beep."
In a memo sent after the Senate primaries were called Tuesday night, Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks characterized Walker as a political cipher “who is not who he says he is.” The memo also offered several pointed contrasts with the newly minted GOP nominee while using language similar to the state party’s messaging in the video.
Political campaigns don’t play out in a vacuum, however, and Walker’s campaign and backers say they’ll make the race about President Joe Biden, who is unpopular in the state, and the toll of inflation on voters’ pocketbooks. The National Republican Senatorial Committee this week struck first in paid media by launching a $1 million TV ad campaign tying Warnock to Biden.
“This is a referendum on Biden’s policies. It won’t be a referendum on Herschel,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose political operation formed the backbone of Walker’s primary campaign. “Democrats will try to make it about Herschel, and Herschel is going to make it about Georgia.”
Scott Paradise, Walker's campaign manager, pointed to the campaign's digital ad as an example of its policy focus. “Six words you didn’t see in Warnock’s ad — inflation, gas prices, baby formula and Biden. You’ll see them in ours,” he said.
Walker's campaign and supporters say he's clear-eyed about what he's up against and know he'll face continued scrutiny over past allegations that he threatened violence against an ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend — none of which resulted in an arrest. He has denied criminal wrongdoing.
Walker also has fielded questions about his mental health, which he has written about in a book. He has said that he has dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder, and that he sees himself as an example for others with mental illnesses.
But while Democrats focus on the previous domestic violence allegations against Walker, some of his allies say Warnock’s failed marriage and child custody fight will now be fair game.
"We expect the attacks," said Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for 34N22, a political committee backing Walker named after his old jersey. "But those attacks aren’t going to hold water coming from a guy who ran over his wife’s foot with his car."
Warnock has denied that allegation, which his then-wife made after an argument at her home in March 2020. The couple were separated and finalizing their divorce at the time, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Medical responders found no signs of injury, according to a police report obtained by the newspaper, and Warnock wasn’t charged.
The incident — including police body camera video of Warnock’s then-wife calling him a “great actor” — was heavily publicized during the 2020 campaign and the 2021 runoff election. Voters nevertheless chose Warnock over Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, in a special election that, along with another Georgia race last year, tipped control of the Senate to Democrats. Warnock, who is finishing an unexpired term, is seeking a full term this year.
Tharon Johnson, a leading Democratic strategist in Georgia, said Walker’s brand will take a hit in the crucible of a campaign in a state where few negative things had ever been written about him before he decided to run for office.
"The more and more people learn about Herschel Walker, candidate for U.S. Senate, the less they are enthused about him," Johnson said. "Besides being a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate, there’s nothing there."
"Let me be clear: I’m a Georgia Bulldogs fan," Johnson added. "The running back Herschel Walker is a Hall of Famer. But that doesn’t qualify him for the U.S. Senate."
John Watson, a former state GOP chair who supported Black in the primary, has long viewed Walker as a risky nominee, and he said Tuesday that Walker must present "a much more vigorous defense" against allegations from his past.
"We need to rally around all our nominees — and that includes, obviously now, Herschel Walker," Watson said. “I think they’re going to have to find some way, in some fashion, to answer the issues that the Dems are going to be driving about his history and then move on and say, 'Look, regardless of what problems were in my history, at least I’m with you Georgians on the issues.'"
Other Republicans say Walker has sufficiently neutralized the accusations.
"Herschel Walker has been open and upfront with taking accountability for his past mental health struggles, and it is a shame that Democrats would exploit this for political gain," said Chris Pack, a GOP strategist who previously worked for the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.
And Lawson, who heads the pro-Walker organization, believes the power of Walker’s brand can survive the attacks to come.
"The fact of the matter is there are 40-, 50-year-old men across the state who sleep in their No. 34 jerseys at night," Lawson said. "He’s an icon. He’s a hero in this state, and the despicable attacks that come against him will 100 percent backfire."
Walker and his allies lean heavily into an argument that presents him as a stoic hero. At his primary eve rally in Athens, the site of Walker’s college football glory days, his former coach and a former teammate heralded Walker as a man of indisputable character. They didn’t mention his mental health struggles or the past allegations, but Mike Steele, who played with Walker on the 1980 national championship team, took pains to present him as emotionally sound — and as tough but fair.
"You’re never going to see Herschel flinch under pressure, like ... who’s that congressman from Illinois, the guy that’s always crying?" Steele said, referring to Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., whose frustrations with Trump have made him a cable news staple. "Every time I turn on the television, that cat is crying and snotting all over the microphone because somebody hurt his feelings."
A few minutes later, Steele went for a softer approach — somewhat.
"Herschel Walker is kind, and he’s compassionate," he said before he worried out loud that he had said the wrong thing. "I know we got the media here, and I want to make sure I clarify before you twist my words. I did not say he was tender."
CORRECTION (May 25, 2022, 3:32 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the spokesman for one of Herschel Walker’s primary opponents. He is Dan McLagan, not McGlagan.