The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What in the name of Trump was the Herschel Walker campaign?

The former president’s man in Georgia was political nonsense personified. And he didn’t lose by much.

Herschel Walker, who lost his bid for U.S. Senate in Georgia on Tuesday, speaks at a campaign rally earlier this month. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)

After Herschel Walker had already been accused of procuring multiple abortions for girlfriends, and after news reports revealed he had not one but three secret children, and after his most visible son, a conservative TikTok star, publicly said his father had “threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from [his] violence” — after he had done all that, it came time, on Tuesday, for Georgia voters to decide whether they wanted to elect him as a senator.

At which point NPR ran a headline that read, “Evangelical voters grapple with Herschel Walker’s controversial image.”

It raises the question: If Herschel Walker’s controversies made them “grapple” then what, exactly, would send them sprinting in the other direction? The man’s opponent was an actual, literal pastor — and still the evangelical Christians didn’t know which one to vote for?

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Walker lost Tuesday’s runoff election to that opponent, incumbent Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), by just under three percentage points per the current tally. “We put up one heck of a fight,” he said in his concession speech.

What was the campaign of Herschel Walker, football star, fumbler of sentences, Donald Trump-anointed, alleged abortion-procurer and all-around quagmire? Did we dream it? Did it dream us? It was a fiasco from the beginning, when the Associated Press reported that Walker had once violently threatened his ex-wife — all the way clear to the end: On Monday, the day before the election, an ex-girlfriend alleged that he had grabbed her by the throat and attempted to punch her (he missed, she said, and hit the wall).

Also this week, Business Insider reported that Walker had served as spokesman for two charities that appeared to engage in “little, if any charity.” Also this week, Walker criticized an unspecified “they” for “bringing pronouns into our military,” but then added, “I don’t even know what the heck is a pronoun.”

“I think Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst candidates in our party’s history,” Georgia’s Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told CBS news in an interview over the weekend.

Hesse: The baffling defense of Herschel Walker

And yet: The runoff election was necessary only because in the general election back in November, Walker and Warnock were neck and neck, each one winning nearly 2 million votes. GOP establishment figures continued, in the ensuing weeks, to support their guy. Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) showed up at a rally in the final stretch of the campaign. “You know why they’re coming after him so hard?” Graham asked. “They’re afraid of him. This is a liberal nightmare.”

The campaign was definitely some kind of nightmare. That is accurate.

Again: What was this campaign?

The Herschel Walker campaign was a slow-motion train wreck. But it was also an inevitability, something set on the tracks long ago. The logical outcome of what happens when a farcical former president fancies himself a kingmaker but favors jesters for the job — Dr. Oz, Sarah Palin.

The campaign was what happens when a party decides that “winning is a virtue,” as right-wing commentator Dana Loesch once said when explaining her support for Walker — that it is, in fact, the only virtue worth pursuing, at the expense of integrity, consistency, truthfulness. Herschel Walker’s campaign was as though a diabolical political scientist boiled down the essence of a typical Trump candidate to its essential goop, leaving behind the distilled dregs of a political philosophy that mostly centers on spouting off nonsense about pronouns and wokeness and reproductive rights and how climate legislation was unnecessary because there were “enough trees around here.”

Throughout the campaign, various commentators launched thoughtful conversations about Walker and what his candidacy said about political fitness. What his candidacy said about athlete worship. What it said about White America, and how White Americans might be using Walker for their own purposes (Please, do read Caroline Randall Williams’s sharp and thoughtful article on this topic in the Atlantic: “I don’t particularly care that Herschel Walker doesn’t seem to know he’s being used,” she wrote. “I care that America let it get this far.”). Certainly Walker himself would have been better off if he had remained retired as a beloved sports figure, in which case his personal demons might have remained private, rather than as a befuddling political figure, at which point they became fair game for public excavation.

In the end, these conversations might have been impactful — the man did lose, after all, though not by much. Less than 100,000 votes out of more than 3.5 million cast.

This (relatively) narrow result was yet another inevitability, one that has to do with another unfortunate reality of our politics: Candidate quality matters, but only at the margins. Walker is not heading to the Senate, but nearly half the Georgia electorate was ready and willing to send a man such as him to the government’s so-called “greatest deliberative body” at the behest of a former president and his core supporters, who might have voted for three bags of MAGA hats in a trench coat if Trump said it was a “great fighter.”

The candidate could have been anyone, and it was Herschel Walker.

It’s not Walker’s “controversial image” that voters, evangelical and otherwise, should be grappling with. It’s the fact that when confronted with this disaster of a campaign, they felt the need to grapple at all.

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