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Herschel Walker and the History of Famous Candidates

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Herschel Walker, the former soccer star recruited by former President Donald Trump to run for the US Senate from Georgia, looks certain to win the Republican nomination. But it’s unclear how strong a challenger he will be to Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock. Walker has no political experience and there are plenty of stories about him that voters may not like.

What Walker has is a lot of fans from when he played college football in the state. It’s nothing unusual for celebrities, including athletes, to run for office. Some of them, like former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley or the late Jack Kemp, who served in the House and the Cabinet, were long involved in public affairs and brought normal or superior knowledge of the politics and government at work. Some… less.

In general, there is no reason to assume that any particular career is particularly ill-suited to the transition into politics. To be frank: there have been former athletes in Congress who were clearly in over their heads. There were also many people with business backgrounds or law degrees who were not suited (or worse) for the job.

That said, Walker, at least so far, seems more on the “minus” side of the spectrum. He has backed Republican candidates at times since his football days, but he doesn’t have much sustained interest in government and public affairs beyond backing Trump and other Republicans. His campaign website provides no indication of this – or much of anything, for that matter, except for a generic issues section and plenty of football references.

There’s nothing wrong with portraying yourself as a celebrity with deep ties to a district or state (although Walker lived in Texas, not Georgia, for years). An ego trip – if that’s what it is – might not be the most admirable reason for a political career, but it certainly isn’t uncommon. Many politicians have had worthy careers even though they started off with the idea that they (to quote Charles Foster Kane) “thought it would be fun” to run for Congress.

Still, it would be nice to see signs of interest in something relevant to a political career. Consider, for example, Colin Allred, a Democratic member of the Texas House and former linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. Allred, who went to law school after his football career, held an executive post during Barack Obama’s presidency and a stretch as a voting rights lawyer before winning his seat at the House in 2018. Walker is more like Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a former college football coach who seems to have decided that since he was famous and well-liked, he might as well run for office.

It’s hard not to see a partisan pattern here: Republicans are happy to put anyone in power as long as they’re a reliable vote. Democrats seek more substance from politicians. This was not the case before – as recently as the 1980s, neither party had a reputation for having politicians who were more prepared or who took the job more seriously. Then the Republicans nominated George W. Bush for president with far too little experience. And then they nominated Trump.

Of course, there are Republicans in Congress — and in state houses and other positions — who take government seriously, and Democrats who don’t. But the parties are no longer equal in this respect.

One of the saddest things about all of this is that partisan polarization among voters has actually made the candidates less important. In theory, at least, this should give parties more freedom to nominate candidates based on their experience and an expressed interest in public affairs. Parties always care about the small potential advantages they can get, and in a tight campaign even very small factors matter. This can therefore sometimes plead in favor of a famous candidate who knows nothing. But the truth is, Republicans could really use some legislative talent in Congress — especially if they take control of it in November.

No Friday column from me – so my weekend reading suggestions are a day earlier:

• Dave Hopkins on Disney’s collision with politics.

• Dan Drezner explains why the war in Ukraine continues.

• Eleanor Paynter, Christa Kuntzelman and Rachel Beatty Riedl at Monkey Cage on worrying trends in refugee management.

• Matthew Shugart on French institutions and their elections.

• Matt Grossmann interviews Elizabeth Popp Berman on economic thinking.

• And James Joyner holder.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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