Herschel Walker is relying on Republican insiders to navigate his Georgia Senate campaign, with his designated super PAC under the command of experienced political hands in Washington and across the country.
The former professional football player was foisted on Republicans by former President Donald Trump. He wanted a loyalist as the party’s nominee for Senate in Georgia against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. But once-skeptical Republican bigwigs in the Beltway and the Peach State are warming to Walker, impressed with the first-time candidate’s decision to hire veteran GOP consultants to guide his 2022 campaign. Walker’s newly unveiled super PAC, “34N22,” is no different.
“He has been running a solid race,” said a Republican operative in Washington who initially worried about Walker’s viability and opposed his candidacy. “The fact that he has a good team and has been listening to their advice is one of the major reasons why he was able to win [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell] and our orbit over.”
The name of Walker’s super PAC derives from the number he wore on his jersey in the NFL and the University of Georgia — also a reference to the election year. Federal law prohibits the Walker campaign from running the super PAC or coordinating with it. But 34N22 has his blessing. The group’s chairman is wealthy Texas entrepreneur Bryan Elliot, a longtime friend and confidant who has founded and managed a range of businesses.
Elliott oversaw the hiring process for 34N22 and decided which consultants to sign. To handle media strategy and polling, he tapped Guy Harrison and Wes Anderson, respectively. The two veteran GOP consultants are partners at the top Washington firm, On Message Inc. The chief fundraiser for 34N22 is Katie Benke, Denver-based finance director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2018 election cycle under then-Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.
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Chris Homan, based in Dallas, is the super PAC’s general consultant.
In 2020, Homan guided Texas Rep. Beth Van Duyne to victory in a congressional district with urban and suburban communities that saw President Joe Biden defeat Trump by roughly 19,000 votes. That achievement impressed Elliott because Walker must do the same thing in Georgia to dislodge Warnock. Austin Barbour, Mississippi-based, is running digital strategy — and 34N22 is already up with an $85,000 digital ad buy targeting “persuadable” Georgia voters.
Stephen Lawson, a Republican strategist in Atlanta who worked on former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 2020 campaign, is advising 34N22 on communications strategy. In a telephone interview Thursday, Lawson discussed the super PAC’s strategy, saying the group was planning a “multimillion” effort to focus on swing voters, an estimated 4% of the Georgia electorate by 34N22 strategists.
“We’re going to really be carrying a lot of the water in terms of exposing and defining Warnock, that’s the lane we’re going to run in,” said Lawson, a veteran of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 2018 campaign and Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s 2014 gubernatorial bid.
“Central to that is making sure Georgians understand that he’s been in lockstep and a rubber stamp for Biden,” Lawson added. “He’s sort of gotten a free pass down here for the last nine months, and I think that’s going to change in a real way very quickly.”
Soon after Warnock advanced to the Senate by defeating Loeffler in a Jan. 5 runoff election, Trump began urging Walker to run. Walker and Trump have been friends for decades, and the businessman and former professional athlete delivered an effective speech on the former president’s behalf at the 2020 Republican convention. The fact Walker was living in Texas, and had done so for at least 20 years, did not matter to Trump.
Walker is an icon in Georgia from his playing days in Athens, getting stopped everywhere he goes for selfies and autographs. But Republican insiders in Georgia and Washington were concerned his candidacy could spell doom for the party in the 2022 Senate race.
Warnock is a talented politician, and Walker’s personal life is checkered with controversy that includes instances of domestic violence. Indeed, Walker has been very candid about his volatile relationships with women, which he says stemmed from mental health issues, and much of what is known about his past is due to information he publicized himself.
As Walker mulled a Senate bid over the summer, his radio silence on whether he would run heightened anxiety among Republican elders that the political novice was not ready for prime time. But since Walker entered the race, he has changed minds. In particular, GOP establishment figures are impressed with the team he has assembled. The roster of veteran Republican strategists advising his super PAC is bolstering that confidence (Walker’s strong poll numbers have helped in that regard.)
Meanwhile, Trump continues to push unfounded claims the 2020 election was stolen, with a large focus of his allegations directed at Georgia. Trump did so again this week with Walker looking on during a fundraiser for his Senate campaign at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s winter residence in Palm Beach, Florida.
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“I say I ran twice, we won twice. We won the first time. We won the second time by much more, we did much better the second time,” Trump told the crowd from the dais in front of a podium adorned with a “Herschel for Senate” sign. Walker initially supported Trump’s claims in tweets he posted in the early months after Biden's victory that made him the first Democratic presidential nominee to win in Georgia since 1992.
But since entering the Senate race in August, Walker has refused to engage on the issue or back up Trump’s allegation the election was rigged or stolen. Rather, the Republican contender has said looking backward to 2020 is counterproductive and that he is focused on the future and the midterm elections. Those comments to Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade in October helped erase doubts about Walker among Republican insiders.