‘I’m Getting Ready’: Football Star’s Cryptic Video Could Upend Georgia Senate Race

By Richard Fausset

If the Georgia college football legend Herschel Walker declares his candidacy it could put former President Donald J. Trump’s power as a kingmaker to the test.

Former President Donald J. Trump greeting Herschel Walker, a former professional football player, at an event on Black economic empowerment in Atlanta in September.
Former President Donald J. Trump greeting Herschel Walker, a former professional football player, at an event on Black economic empowerment in Atlanta in September.Credit...Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

ATLANTA — In his 1980s prime, Herschel Walker, the Georgia college football legend, ran the ball with the downhill ferocity of a runaway transfer truck. There was no question about which way he was headed.

But that was not the case this week, as Mr. Walker tweeted out a cryptic 21-second video that sent the state’s political players into a frenzy of decoding and guesswork.

Did the video amount to an announcement that the Heisman-winning Mr. Walker — spurred on by the sis-boom-bah urging of his old friend Donald J. Trump — plans to enter the Republican primary for a chance to run next year against the Democratic senator the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock?

That was one plausible interpretation of the clip, in which a smiling Mr. Walker, who lives in Texas, revs the motor of a sports car.

“I’m getting ready,” Mr. Walker says, as the camera pans to the car’s Georgia license plate. “And we can run with the big dogs.”

If Mr. Walker indeed jumps into the Senate race, it will go a long way toward firming up the 2022 pro-Trump roster in Georgia, where the former president has vowed to handpick G.O.P. candidates to exact revenge on the Republicans who declined to support his false contention that he was the true winner of the 2020 election in the state, which he in fact lost by about 12,000 votes.

Mr. Walker, who once played for Mr. Trump’s professional team, the New Jersey Generals, in the short-lived United States Football League, urged Republicans to stick by Mr. Trump in the weeks after Election Day as the departing president pressed his unfounded claims of voter fraud. In March, Mr. Trump, in a statement, said it would be “fantastic” if Mr. Walker ran for Senate.

“He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL,” Mr. Trump said. “He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!”

But a Walker candidacy may also prove to be the most high-stakes test of whether Mr. Trump’s fervent wish to play kingmaker will serve his party’s best interests in a hotly contested swing state that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Though Mr. Walker is the most revered player in the modern history of the football-crazy state — Bulldog fans still talk about where they were when they saw his jaw-dropping performance in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, the way other Americans talk about the moon landing — the former running back also brings a complicated post-football story.

Mr. Walker, 59, says that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder, an affliction formerly known as multiple personality disorder. His forthrightness on the topic of mental illness, outlined in his 2008 book, “Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder,” has earned him praise in some quarters. But others have doubted the diagnosis, calling it a convenient way to excuse bad behavior.

In a 2005 application for a protective order, Mr. Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, alleged that Mr. Walker had a history of “extremely threatening behavior” toward her. In one instance, she has said, he put a gun to her temple. In his book, Mr. Walker admitted to numerous instances of playing Russian roulette.

Mr. Walker could not reached for comment for this article, but in a 2008 interview with The New York Times, he said he had the disorder under control with the help of therapy.

Leo Smith, a Republican political consultant in Georgia, said that he hopes Mr. Walker will remain on the sidelines. “As a political consultant, I’d recommend that Mr. Walker influence politics through fund-raising and donations, not as a candidate,” he said.

ImageSenator Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia, center, greeting Vice President Kamala Harris in Atlanta on Friday. Some believe Mr. Walker’s Twitter video was a sign he plans to run against Mr. Warnock next year.
Senator Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia, center, greeting Vice President Kamala Harris in Atlanta on Friday. Some believe Mr. Walker’s Twitter video was a sign he plans to run against Mr. Warnock next year.Credit...Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

But Randy Evans, a former ambassador to Luxembourg appointed by Mr. Trump, said that Mr. Walker may prove to be a “transformational” candidate who crosses boundaries of party and race (Mr. Walker is Black). “He’s got the demeanor to do it,” Mr. Evans said. “I recognize fully the difficulties of brand-new people who run who’ve never run before, but I thought Senator Tuberville did a pretty good job in Alabama, and that Herschel Walker would do a great job in Georgia.”

Mr. Evans was referring to Tommy Tuberville, the staunchly pro-Trump Republican and big-time college football coach who easily won election to the Senate in November. But while Mr. Trump remains popular among Republicans in both Alabama and Georgia, the latter has seen Democrats make big inroads in part because of demographic change and a distaste for Trumpism in some important areas, including the suburbs north of Atlanta.

Mr. Trump has already endorsed Representative Jody Hice, a hard-right conservative and Baptist preacher who plans to run for Secretary of State in Georgia against the incumbent Brad Raffensperger. Like Mr. Walker, Mr. Hice supports Mr. Trump’s bogus claims of a rigged election, and a Trump endorsement may be enough to hand him a primary victory.

But a number of Republicans are quietly concerned that both Mr. Hice and Mr. Walker may wither in the scrutiny of a general election. Suburban, centrist women are likely to take note of Mr. Walker’s ex-wife’s story, as well as Mr. Hice’s comment that he approved of women in politics, so long as “the woman’s within the authority of her husband.”

If Mr. Walker does enter the race, he will be the best known among a Republican field that already includes Kelvin King, a construction executive; Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL; and Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner. There is also a possibility that former Senator Kelly Loeffler, who lost the seat to Mr. Warnock in the January runoff election, could try for a rematch.

Mr. Warnock is the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — the home church of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His victory in January, as well as the victory of his fellow Georgia Democrat, Senator Jon Ossoff, served as a stinging rebuke to Mr. Trump a few weeks after his own loss in the state.

Mr. Warnock must defend his seat so soon after his election because he is serving out the remainder of a term begun by former Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican who stepped down because of poor health. Mr. Warnock is likely to run emphasizing his support for social programs and support for Georgia businesses.

“Whether it’s Trump’s handpicked candidate Herschel Walker, failed former Senator Kelly Loeffler, or any other candidate in this chaotic Republican field, not one of them is focused on what matters to Georgians,” said Dan Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, in a statement.

Debbie Dooley, the president of the Atlanta Tea Party, said that she is hoping that Georgia might see a general election in which all four candidates for the two top offices, senator and governor, are Black, allowing voters to take racial matters out of the decision-making process and instead have a clear choice between “competing ideologies.”

In the governor’s race, Ms. Dooley is hoping that Vernon Jones, a Black, pro-Trump candidate not endorsed by Mr. Trump, will defeat Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. And she is assuming, like many other Georgians, that Stacey Abrams will run for governor on the Democratic side.

In the Senate race, Ms. Dooley said she wants to see Mr. Walker jump into the primary and win it. “That’s who Trump wants,” she said, although she added that doing so would betray one loyalty: She is a die-hard Alabama fan.

“Roll Tide,” she said.