Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia football legend now running for the U.S. Senate, has broken ranks with his most powerful backer, former President Donald Trump.
Asked whether he supported Trump's contention that Republicans shouldn't vote in upcoming elections because of Trump's claims of election fraud — claims which have been continuously dismissed, including by members of his own administration — Walker said "that is not the right message."
Election officials and courts across the country have thoroughly and consistently debunked Trump's claims of election fraud, at the local, state and federal level. However, Trump has continued to voice the idea that the election was stolen from him, and last week he made a proclamation via his email mailing list that indicated he wouldn't be letting go of the issue anytime soon.
“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ‘22 or ‘24," Trump said. "It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”
Walker is clearly among the Republicans who believe that the "most important thing" is not to fixate on the results of a lost election at the expense of future ones.
“I think everyone’s got to get out and vote,” Walker said on Brian Kilmeade's radio show. “You know, we can’t look at the past. We can’t continue to look at the past.”
The question now becomes how Trump will respond to Walker's defiance of Trump's guiding ethos. Both Georgia Senate seats flipped from Republican to Democrat in a special January runoff election, results that flipped control of the entire Senate. Trump drew heavy criticism for his role in the outcome of that runoff election; his continual focus on the nuances of his own loss depressed Republican turnout in the special election, and he campaigned little in Georgia before the runoff. Ever since, Trump has fixated not on the loss of Republican control of the Senate, but on his own grievances, even at a September event designed to promote Walker's candidacy.
Trump and Walker first connected in the early 1980s, when Trump acquired the New Jersey Generals of the defunct USFL. Walker, then fresh out of a national championship career at Georgia, was the Generals' centerpiece until the league vaporized, in part because of a failed Trump-spurred challenge of the NFL. Walker and Trump nonetheless remained close, and in September, Trump offered a full-throated endorsement of Walker's Senate run:
"Herschel Walker is a friend, a Patriot, and an outstanding American who is going to be a GREAT United States Senator," Trump wrote in a statement. "Herschel Walker will never let you down. He was a great football player and will be an even better U.S. Senator — if that is even possible. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!"
Walker, 59, is an icon in the state of Georgia, and Republicans backing Walker's effort clearly believe his status as a Bulldog deity will help win back voters that defected from the party in 2020. In that presidential election, Georgia voted Democrat for the first time since 1992.
Walker's break with Trump will be a test of Walker's own independence, as well as the extent of Trump's vindictiveness and single-mindedness. Trump, who still wields massive influence inside the Republican party, has severed connections with many Republicans who have not endorsed his claims of fraud to his liking, calling for purges of those insufficiently loyal to his cause. Republicans already in office have chosen to retire rather than fight the tide of voters who expect absolute loyalty to Trump.
"President Trump, I'm very honored that he endorsed me," Walker said. "He knew I'm the right man for the job. But he knows Herschel Walker is going to do it Herschel Walker's way. Meaning I'm going to go out and run for this seat. It's not Donald Trump running for it, it's Herschel Walker running for it."
With more than a year to go before the election, few high-quality polls have taken the pulse of the Georgia Senate election. Polls of voters by Public Policy Polling taken in August showed Warnock leading all potential Republican challengers, though his lead over Walker — two percentage points — was the narrowest of the field.
The Warnock race promises to be one of the most bruising, and expensive, in Senate history. Warnock has raised more than $9 million since June 30, the highest quarterly total of any member of Congress. Walker has raised about $3.8 million, although he did not officially declare for the race until Aug. 24.
“In just five weeks, Herschel raised twice as much as all of our primary opponents combined raised in the full quarter," a Walker spokesperson told the Daily Beast. "Herschel has unprecedented momentum in Georgia and is laser focused on winning back this seat.”
Still to be determined: how much Trump will aid in that effort.
Former college football star and current senatorial candidate Herschel Walker speaks at a rally, as former President Donald Trump applauds on Sept 25. 2021 in Perry, Georgia. (Reuters/Dustin Chambers)
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.