(CNN)Former President Donald Trump’s backing of football great Herschel Walker to run for the Georgia Senate seat has been enough to effectively freeze the GOP field in place — even though some Republicans privately worry the political neophyte might fizzle against Sen. Raphael Warnock in a high-stakes general election.
Warnock, who is running for a full six-year term next year after narrowly winning his seat in a special election in January, is a top target for Republicans. And with the backing of Trump and his closest allies, who believe that Walker is uniquely able to unite a party torn apart by their 2020 losses, prospective Republican candidates are signaling they are willing to sit out until the legendary athlete makes a decision.
But the prospect that Walker could have the field to himself is causing anxiety among some Republicans in Georgia and Washington, who privately are uncertain whether the first-time candidate and Texas resident could handle the enormous challenges ahead. And they’re worried that Trump is propping up a candidate simply because he has been a loyal friend, rather than assessing the former NFL running back’s electoral viability in a pivotal battleground that could again determine the next Senate majority.
Trump’s involvement in the Georgia primary underscores both his enduring influence among the conservative base and concerns among senior Republicans that his meddling in the 2022 midterms could turn off more moderate voters whose support the GOP needs to win back power on Capitol Hill.
In a brief phone call on Wednesday, Walker didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to announce.
“Right now, (I’m) just going through the process and thinking about it,” Walker told CNN. “Not really talking a lot about it.”
And he insisted he wasn’t doing Trump’s bidding.
“This got nothing to do with President Trump,” Walker said. “With me, I’m about this country right now.”
Privately, some Republicans are nervous that Walker’s indecision has put the brakes on the GOP effort to take down Warnock, who is methodically stocking up a massive warchest in anticipation for another bruising campaign. And it’s anyone’s guess what kind of candidate Walker might turn out to be.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety, down here about, like, what his campaign will actually look like,” said a Georgia Republican operative.
Publicly, top Republicans are uncertain what to make of Walker either.
Asked about Walker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN: “Well, I’ve met him.”
McConnell added: “I have no idea who we’re going to come up with down there. … I think it’s wide open.”
Trump’s ties to Walker stretch back years
In March, Trump publicly pushed Walker to run for the seat that could determine the future control of the Senate.
Their relationship goes back to 1984, when Trump — the then-owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals — gave the former Georgia Bulldogs running back a contract extension.
They stayed in touch; Donald Trump Jr. recounts in his book “Triggered” that he went to Disney World when he was six with Walker’s family, and Walker would visit the Trumps at their house in Greenwich, Connecticut. Walker later appeared on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” with Trump and encouraged his 2016 and 2020 presidential bids. And in December, Walker tweeted a video supporting Trump’s effort to overturn his loss and subvert the will of the electorate. Trump responded, “Herschel is speaking the truth!”
Walker has had several conversations with Trump and his team, consulting with the former President’s aides about who to bring on board, how to set up a campaign and what kind of message he should have prepared to respond to anticipated attacks out of the gate, according to a person close to Trump.
Walker has also spoken with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and close Trump allies as well, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said the former Heisman Trophy winner would be an “outstanding candidate.”
“We need to broaden the party, right?” Graham said of Walker, an African American. “It’d be great to have somebody of his stature running as a conservative.”
As Walker deliberates, Republicans are eager to find their nominee. Two candidates — Kelvin King, a construction firm owner, Air Force veteran and prominent Black Trump supporter, and Latham Saddler, a banking executive and Navy SEAL — have already announced their campaigns. The two top candidates in 2020 — former Sen. Kelly Loeffler and former Rep. Doug Collins — are also considering running again. Warnock and Loeffler finished in the top two last fall, advancing to a January runoff where Warnock narrowly prevailed.
Potential candidates wait for Walker to make a decision
Collins is nearing a decision, according to people familiar with his thinking, and has become increasingly convinced that there are few Republicans who can avoid a bruising primary and navigate the general election.
Others are looking at the race too.
Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter told CNN that he is encouraging Walker to run, calling him “a fighter,” but added that if “Hershel doesn’t run, then I can run.”
Carter has reached out to Ward Baker, a well-known GOP political operative, to be a senior adviser on his Senate campaign if he does run, according to multiple sources. Baker confirmed the account to CNN.
“He’s doing his due diligence and he is praying about it,” Carter said of Walker. “He’s a very religious person, a deep believer. So, you know, he’ll make the right decision.”
There’s little appetite for any Republican candidate to repeat 2020, when the Collins-Loeffler clash forced Loeffler to the right and weakened her in the runoff election.
Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN that he’s discussed the last cycle with Collins, when the NRSC — under a different staff and leadership — torched Collins’ campaign in order to secure the primary for the incumbent Loeffler, who was appointed to her position by Gov. Brian Kemp. In March, the Republican consulting firm OnMessage, which counts Scott among its top clients but is not affiliated with any Georgia Senate candidate, released a poll showing Collins in the strongest position in the GOP primary.
“We’re not going to get involved in open primaries,” Scott said he told Collins.
While Georgia was long a Republican stronghold, the state’s changing demographics and voter registration drives led by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams have made Democrats much more competitive. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Trump there, and Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff beat Loeffler and GOP Sen. David Perdue, respectively, becoming the first Democrats elected to the Senate from Georgia since 2000. Warnock’s campaign recently announced he raised nearly $6 million in the first three months of the year.
When asked about Walker, Warnock told CNN: “I’m prepared to defeat whoever they put up.”
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that next year’s Georgia race is going to be “hotly contested.”
“You can see, it’s pretty obvious from his fundraising, the campaign hasn’t skipped a beat,” Peters said of Warnock.
Even some Georgia Republicans privately agree.
“People are starting to get really nervous that Warnock is building this gigantic war chest, and we don’t even have a substantive candidate,” said another Georgia Republican operative.
Some say that Walker looks good on paper. He’s a legendary University of Georgia running back and a Black Republican who would run with the support of Trump.
Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer and former US ambassador to Luxembourg in the Trump administration, said that Walker “transcends” the divisions within the Georgia Republican Party, which could “complicate the political landscape for any of the more traditional candidates,” and that he could focus the race on the Democratic control of Washington.
“He is a candidate that Trump Republicans, non-Trump Republicans, Independents, traditional Democrats, and even many partisan Democrats can agree with,” said Evans. “It is why so many Georgia voters of all persuasions have taken to quoting the famous Larry Munson who was often heard to shout, ‘Run, Herschel, run.'”
Gabby Orr and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.