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How Republicans Cast Aside Concerns and Learned to Love Herschel Walker

Follow our live coverage of Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock’s debate in Georgia.

Since Herschel Walker launched his bid for Senate last year, Georgia voters have learned about his ex-wife’s allegations of domestic violence, his multiple children born out of wedlock and, most recently, assertions from a former girlfriend that he paid for one abortion and urged her to end a second pregnancy, while claiming to oppose abortion.

Mr. Walker, a former football star and first-time candidate, has denied the latest claim and expressed shock about what he has cast as a stunning partisan broadside. But some Republicans close to him were hardly surprised: They had been discussing the arrival of this moment with the candidate for months.

Mr. Walker’s team was braced to defend him against accusations that he threatened his ex-wife, a claim that’s been public for years. But some advisers also knew about the specific abortion claim made by the mother of one of Mr. Walker’s children, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Those who knew said they warned Mr. Walker to prepare for the possibility that those details would become fodder in a political campaign, but Mr. Walker refused.

The issue mostly frustrated him, these people said. Mr. Walker privately denied the abortion, but instead of discussing a strategy to handle the claim, he maintained that the details would never become public. At times he would argue that if his ex-girlfriend’s account did leak out, it would not be believed because he had a child with the woman, according to the two people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The race remains a tossup; polls show Mr. Walker’s support dipping slightly, but in a tight race that could make the difference. Party leaders have stood by him. He continues to evince the brash confidence of a star athlete.

“They don’t realize that they’ve woken a grizzly bear,” Mr. Walker told Fox News aboard his campaign bus this week. “I’ve won at everything I’ve set my mind to.”

The Republican has frequently mentioned his mental health issues — he has been diagnosed with disassociative identity disorder, he said. He has not denied the domestic violence allegations and has suggested the disorder is to blame for previous outbursts and erratic behavior. He describes himself as a once-troubled man “saved by grace.” Democrats have said Mr. Walker has “a pattern of lying” and is not qualified to serve. The race could turn on which version of Mr. Walker voters believe.

“There are always risks with first-time candidates,” said David Shafer, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. “But potential reward never comes without risk.”

From the beginning, Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Walker in the race. Mr. Walker’s hero status in Georgia, where he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship for the University of Georgia, made him just the sort of celebrity candidate Mr. Trump likes to promote. As a Black Republican, he was a step toward diversifying the overwhelmingly white party.

But the draw was hardly just political. The two men have known each other for decades, and — just as he’s done for White House jobs and other political endorsements — Mr. Trump let his personal connection override any background checks and other research typically involved in such high-profile job searches.

Mr. Walker grew close to Mr. Trump when he was a young athlete who had left college early to sign the richest contract in pro football with the New Jersey Generals franchise in the United States Football League in 1983. Mr. Trump purchased the team months later.

Credit…Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

Mr. Walker became something of a surrogate uncle to Mr. Trump’s children, who often spent stretches of their summers with him. Eric Trump, and his brother, Donald Trump Jr. — whom Mr. Walker occasionally calls “Little Donald” — have spoken warmly to associates about trips with Mr. Walker to Disney World.

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When Mr. Walker talks about his connection to Mr. Trump he emphasizes their friendship. “He’s eaten at my home,” Mr. Walker said in a May interview with Revolt.TV. “I’ve eaten at his home. My family has eaten at his home.”

Mr. Trump was even more effusive when Mr. Walker appeared as a contestant on Mr. Trump’s reality television program. “I am not a gay man — and I love you,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Walker when booting him off the Celebrity Apprentice.

As he was preparing to announce his campaign last year, Mr. Walker bristled when friends and advisers tried to ask about his past, refusing even in private to take responsibility for his actions, according to Republicans who have been close to Mr. Walker. He grew frustrated with direct questions and raised doubts about the loyalty of his own team. One Republican strategist whom Mr. Walker spoke with last year said that Mr. Walker kept repeating how easy the race was going to be.

Christian Walker, Mr. Walker’s son, says he knew his father’s past would be difficult for the family and counseled him not to run, although he did not know about the abortion issue.

“I absolutely tried my best to attempt to get him prepared,” Christian Walker said in an email to The Times. “The best way forward was honesty. That clearly didn’t happen.”

(Mr. Walker has repeatedly said that he loves Christian, though he appears to have grown frustrated as Democrats seize on his son’s public criticism. “I hope they’re paying him,” Mr. Walker said this week, “because I’ve been paying his rent for a long time.”)

Mr. Walker had reason to be optimistic about his bid. Internal polling showed that he enjoyed an approval rating of higher than 90 percent among Georgia Republicans. The combination of his local star power and vocal support of Mr. Trump made him virtually untouchable in a Republican primary.

Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

“If your name is Herschel Walker, and you’re a pro-life conservative, with his name ID, celebrity and impressive fund-raising ability, the primary was over the day he entered the race,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a former state party chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said.

Mr. Trump, too, was unconcerned with Mr. Walker’s past. “Twenty years ago would’ve been a bigger problem. I don’t think it’s a problem today,” he said in September 2021, according to “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America” by Maggie Haberman, a Times reporter.

Asked to explain, the former president — who was recorded bragging about groping women, accused of sexual assault and twice impeached — said: “Because the world is changing.”

Mr. McConnell, the second most powerful man in Republican politics, had other ideas about who should run.

From the moment two runoff losses in Georgia cost Republicans their Senate majority in January 2021, the state was at the center of Mr. McConnell’s plan to wrest back control in 2022. Even before Senator David Perdue of Georgia had publicly conceded defeat, Mr. McConnell asked him to consider running again this year, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

But Mr. Perdue didn’t entertain the idea for long. In February, he flew to Florida for a visit and a round of golf with Mr. Trump. Within days, Mr. Perdue announced he would not be running and soon after Mr. Trump publicly urged in a statement, “Run Herschel, run!”

Mr. McConnell did not take no for an answer.

Over the summer, news stories began to reveal new details about accusations that Mr. Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior. (Notably, Mr. McConnell’s longtime political adviser, Josh Holmes, shared on Twitter one Associated Press article, calling it “about as comprehensive a takedown as I’ve ever read. My lord.”)

Days earlier, Mr. McConnell met with Mr. Perdue at the Capitol, checking if the former senator’s decision not to run was still in effect. It was. Mr. Walker officially entered the race in August, and the two men were soon speaking frequently. Mr. McConnell grew more comfortable as Mr. Walker was solicitous of his advice, according to two people briefed on the calls. Within two months, he had formally endorsed Mr. Walker.

In embracing Mr. Walker, Mr. McConnell accepted a candidate who, from the start, was sure to make the race about the Republican nominee instead of the Democratic one — anathema to his preferred strategy. By the spring of 2022, Mr. McConnell was publicly defending Mr. Walker’s tumultuous past.

“Almost every candidate has had troubled periods,” Mr. McConnell said in an April interview with Axios, when asked about his ex-wife’s allegations of violence. He cut off further questions: “I think Walker is completely electable.”

Credit…Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press

Others still disagreed. Georgia’s straight-talking agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, got into the primary race a few months before Mr. Walker. As momentum for his opponent grew, Mr. Black insisted his party was about to cede the advantage.

Mr. Walker, he argued, was a political novice with a turbulent history who wouldn’t be able to make the race about the Democrats.

“If Herschel Walker is the nominee,” Mr. Black warned in an interview days before the primary, “this race will be about Herschel Walker.”

Mr. Black’s team made its case to National Republican Senatorial Committee officials in the fall of 2021, showing a video of Mr. Walker’s ex-wife speaking about the time he held a gun to her temple and threatened to shoot. Party officials made them turn it off; the meeting was supposed to be about general election strategy, one official said.

The same clip has been aired repeatedly by Democrats.

Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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