• Sun. Jan 29th, 2023

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Inside the turbulent, doomed campaign of Herschel Walker

Georgia’s Senate runoff was less than a day old and, already, there was a shouting match at a staff meeting. 

Republican candidate Herschel Walker’s campaign was starved for cash as it faced Sen. Raphael Warnock and his deep-pocketed Democratic allies. A Walker consultant wanted one of the campaign advisers to coach the candidate to give a sharp, clear fundraising pitch when he went on Fox News to fire up small-dollar donors and send them to TeamHerschel.com, according to the consultant and the adviser, who both agreed to recount the dispute with NBC News on the condition of anonymity.

The short answer: No. The adviser insisted that Walker can’t sound like “a used car salesman” and needed to spend more time driving a negative message about Warnock on TV. But the consultant wanted more from Walker.

“If you think that’s how it works, you’re smoking drugs,” the adviser snapped back.

“If you think we’re going to win a campaign with no money, you’re smoking drugs!” the consultant shouted in return.

A few slurs, including a four-letter word, were exchanged. No one apologized. Walker never changed his fundraising pitch, and he was eventually outspent in the runoff, contributing to his defeat Tuesday night.

Beyond highlighting an intense clash in a nationally watched political campaign’s crucible, the blowup underscored the core problem of Walker’s campaign: Walker.

The former Heisman Trophy-winning University of Georgia football star was hard to manage and coach, according to campaign staff who didn’t want to publicly speak about his foibles; they noted his poor public speaking skills and penchant for veering off message. The candidate limited his television time almost exclusively to the comfortable environs of Fox News and other conservative media outlets as the messy details of his troubled past unfolded daily in the mainstream media and in Democratic attack ads on TV, radio and social media. And donors both big and small weren’t as generous as the opposition was for Warnock.

While those issues were apparent to even casual news consumers, behind the scenes, campaign insiders and their political allies describe a first-time celebrity candidate who was difficult to manage and utterly unprepared for a brutal campaign that would tarnish a once-sterling brand.

‘Stop being a moron on TV’

Walker did not set up a traditional campaign structure, according to people who worked for him. They say that decisions normally left to professional staff — from media buys to the campaign’s daily messaging to vendors who sold campaign swag online to picking event locations — were instead controlled, and often micromanaged, by Walker and his wife, Julie Blanchard. Neither had any experience in politics. It led to delayed decisions and redundancies, namely the hiring of two media vendors to make TV ads, whereas most campaigns have only one.

Blanchard and Walker did not return messages for comment, but the team’s senior adviser Gail Gitcho said she was proud of the campaign.

“Campaigns are hard and they certainly aren’t pretty,” she said. “Herschel, Julie and the entire campaign absorbed more body blows than any other campaign could have survived. Everyone on Team Herschel deserves credit for charging forward with the intent of working for Georgia. Every one of us left it all out on the field. No regrets.”

Other staff told NBC News in interviews that Walker also was evasive about his personal life and prohibited them from corresponding with the four different women who had four children with Walker, an issue which proved problematic in October when The Daily Beast reported that one of those women accused the anti-abortion candidate of paying her to get an abortion years ago. Walker denied the allegation but his oldest son, social media influencer Christian Walker, denounced him.

Two staffers said Walker was not forthcoming about at least two of his children, learning about them only when they reached out to his son at the beginning of the year. The staffers were attempting to get Christian to persuade his father to stop posting stream-of-consciousness video meditations on Twitter at 4 a.m.

“I told them about his children BACK IN JANUARY! Months before any story came out about it,” Christian told NBC News via text. “I gave them a head start about all the information I knew.”

The outreach to Christian worked and the candidate stopped posting the videos. Months later, in late June, as The Daily Beast inquired about whether Walker had children he was keeping secret, a staffer reached out to Christian again for help managing his father.

“Would you be open to talking to hw about some of the messaging stuff? I think he listens to you more than any of us,” the staffer, referring to Herschel Walker’s initials, wrote in a text message to Christian, which he shared for this article.

“What do you mean by messaging?” he replied.

“Stop being a moron on tv. Read your playbook before opening your mouth,” the staffer said. “We’re just desperate.”

By that point, because of the family information provided by the candidate’s son in January, the staff was prepared for questions about Walker’s other children after it had conducted opposition research into him to anticipate future surprises. The “oppo” book, however, didn’t have information about the abortion story, which rocked Walker’s campaign.

The first dossier

The oppo book was also the second dossier made about Walker. 

Before Walker announced his candidacy Aug. 25, 2021, he engaged three top political consultants with Georgia roots — Austin Chambers, Paul Bennecke and Nick Ayers, who had served as former Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. They promptly hired a law firm to conduct opposition research on Walker. It’s a standard practice on campaigns to do self-research, in order to know everything that could come out about a candidate. 

In just two weeks, the firm assembled a 500-page dossier filled with possible business scandals, controversial quotes from Walker and allegations of domestic violence and bizarre behavior, according to four sources who had seen the oppo book.

“We found 500 pages in two weeks on you and God only knows what else is out there,” Chambers told Walker, according to one of the sources who overheard him discuss the book with Walker in a July meeting in the dining room of a Republican donor who lived in Atlanta’s Buckhead district.

Insiders diverge on why the three consultants did not end up working for Walker, but knowledgeable sources say they parted ways.

And despite the damaging information that could come out in a campaign, Walker decided to run anyway. A month before his announcement, on July 23, 2021, The Associated Press ran the first major story on Walker’s “turbulent past,” with documents that “detail accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior.” Walker’s campaign declined to comment for the AP report.

But before he announced, Walker and Blanchard were undeterred and believed that his brand as a Georgia football star and his charisma would overpower any negative stories in the news media or attack ads from Democrats, according to those who had spoken with the two before he decided to announce his campaign a month later.

“He’s Herschel Walker,” Blanchard told one confidant, who relayed the conversation for this article. “He’s the best candidate you’ll ever see.”

Walker, a fierce competitor, also projected confidence.

“I’ve been through tougher,” he told the same confidant. “This is not tough. We got this.”

Dec. 8, 202201:38

Staff said Walker repeatedly told them that Cindy Grossman, Christian’s mother, would help the campaign by cutting an ad or giving media interviews to counteract Democratic attack ads that featured her talking about the candidate’s history of mental illness and abuse in a “60 Minutes” interview in 2008. The attack ads never made clear that Grossman was speaking in favor of Walker during that old interview in which she talked about his recovery. However, Grossman remained silent, leaving some staff with the feeling that the candidate misled them about the closeness of his relationship with his ex-wife.

Christian, who said on Twitter that his mother “lives a quiet life,” told NBC News that he wasn’t sure if any advisers ever urged his father not to run. But the family was against it.

“My family and I were asking him not to run personally,” Walker, who detailed his thoughts about his dad’s campaign to BuzzFeed, said via text message.

Money problems

As Walker geared up to announce, he then hired another seasoned Georgia adviser, Heath Garrett, and Scott Farmer, an adviser to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who became one of Walker’s biggest boosters. Garrett, who was working for multiple candidates, said Walker wanted a chief consultant dedicated solely to his campaign, so he helped hire veteran consultant Scott Paradise.

Before he left Walker amicably, Garrett said, Walker was already being buffeted by outside forces that were tough to tune out.

“There were too many people in Washington, New York and Mar-a-Lago advising Herschel at 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s what I experienced in two or three months,” he said.

But Garrett blamed Walker’s loss on money, estimating that Warnock and all of his allies outspent Walker and allied Republicans by 3 to 1.

“If I told you one campaign was going to spend almost $300 million in a battleground state and the other campaign spends less than $100 million, who do you think is going to win?” he said.

Garrett also pointed out that Walker expertly managed his longtime friend, former President Donald Trump, who is toxic to many general election voters in Georgia for trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election in the state. Trump stayed out of the state in the final months at Walker’s behest, according to Republicans familiar with the relationship between the two men.

For all his problems, Walker still came close to winning. In the Nov. 8 general election, he trailed Warnock by just a point in a race that included a Libertarian candidate. Walker was the only statewide Georgia Republican who didn’t win his race. But since Warnock didn’t crack 50%, the race went to a runoff Dec. 6, making the Georgia Senate race the last contest of the cycle.

Walker’s fundraising, which always lagged Warnock’s, became even more anemic when it became clear that Democrats would maintain control of the Senate, one senior campaign adviser said.

“The air just went out of the campaign,” the adviser said. “And then we just began fighting each other.”

‘A pack of beat puppies’

Not only did Walker’s campaign staffers have their row on the first day of the runoff, two top Republicans in the Senate — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott of Florida — began feuding over the disappointing results.

At the same time, other Republicans began using the runoff as a gimmick to fundraise for their own political ends while barely sharing any of the money with the Walker campaign, which called them out. Meanwhile, when Walker appeared on Fox News, he was often paired with Graham or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas so that they could make the fundraising pitch for his website that the candidate had trouble delivering, the sources said.

Walker’s message discipline also came under internal campaign scrutiny when he decided to recount a story about watching the 1980s movie “Fright Night” and mused about the merits of werewolves versus vampires. Warnock put it in an ad. Former President Barack Obama later mocked Walker for it in a rally for Warnock, prompting Walker to complain Obama didn’t tell “the whole story.”

Walker’s campaign tried to go on the offense by drawing attention to a troubled housing complex partly owned by the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock is a pastor. But Warnock’s campaign changed the narrative by campaigning in Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville, Georgia, and featuring a former high school football coach who savaged the Republican.

Two Walker advisers wanted to ignore Warnock, but they said Walker’s wife insisted they denounce the coach as a liar and spend the day rebutting him, which The Atlanta Journal Constitution detailed in a story about the campaign drifting off its message.

By Election Day, Walker campaign staffers knew they were likely to lose. 

“They looked like a pack of beat puppies. It was sad,” one Republican consultant said when he saw them gathered at a restaurant Monday afternoon.

But other Republicans have less pity.

Dan McLagan worked for Walker’s GOP primary challenger, Gary Black, and said the Republican establishment refused to listen to his campaign’s warnings that Walker was a “train wreck” of a candidate who wouldn’t win.

“What we just established is the absolute floor of the GOP base in Georgia. This is what you get when you have a candidate who threatened women, stalked them, [paid them] to have abortions, said crazy things and has an adversarial relationship with the English language,” McLagan said. “Maybe next time, we’ll learn.”