Republicans are coalescing around the Senate candidacy of former football star Herschel Walker, a Donald Trump favorite who once gave the GOP pause over allegations that he threatened the lives of two women, including his ex-wife, and embellished his business record.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in party leadership, endorsed Walker on Monday, signaling growing support for the political novice among GOP leaders intent on ousting Georgia Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, a Democrat, next year.
"Herschel Walker is a fighter, a uniter, and a proven winner with the ability to bring Republicans together to win in November," Thune, who faces a primary challenge next year, said in his endorsement.
Warnock, a pastor, helped deliver the Senate majority to the Democrats, winning one of two runoffs in January, and is a top GOP target. The 2022 Georgia contest for a full, six-year term is certain to be one of the most competitive in a state that narrowly backed President Joe Biden, the first Democrat to win the state since 1992.
At the top of the ballot will be the race for governor, with Stacey Abrams, Democrat, who was instrumental in energizing Black voters in the presidential election and the January races, widely expected to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp, Republican.
Walker, the 59-year-old former University of Georgia running back and NFL Hall of Famer, officially entered the race in August and has since received support from a number of high-profile Republicans despite no significant experience in politics, questions about his personal behavior and business record, and his residency.
Former President Donald Trump, whose popularity with Republican voters continues unabated months after leaving the White House, endorsed Walker in September calling him "a friend" and "a patriot" before sharing his conservative stances on several hot-button issues.
"Herschel is tough on crime and borders, and he will always stand in support of law enforcement, military and our vets," Trump wrote. "He will fight hard for our Second Amendment and voter integrity."
Walker, who starred on Trump's New Jersey Generals in the now-defunct United States Football League, appeared at a rally with Trump last month in Perry, Georgia.
"What qualifies me to run is because I love America, and I'm going to fight for America and it's time for us to stop wondering what we're going to do and just do it," Walker said.
A star with the Dallas Cowboys, Walker has lived in Texas since 2011 before listing an Atlanta residence for filing his campaign paperwork in August.
He has impressed Republicans with his fundraising, collecting nearly $3.8 million for his Senate bid, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Warnock raised $9.5 million and has $17.2 million cash on hand.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in a tweet Oct. 15 that Walker "is the real deal. Love his faith, his optimism, and his passion for Georgia and the United States of America. He's going to be a great Senator and I'm proud to endorse him."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appears to have warmed to Walker's candidacy, telling Politico that the former reality television contestant - he was on "Celebrity Apprentice" - had "impressive performances on national television."
"He's called me; we had a good conversation," McConnell said last month." I think there's every indication he's going to be a good candidate."
As Walker pushes ahead with his candidacy, his personal and business records have drawn closer scrutiny.
Cindy Grossman, Walker's ex-wife, claimed in divorce filings that her former husband was physically abusive and also threatened to kill her, forcing her to secure a protective order against him, alleging violent and controlling behavior.
She told ABC News in 2008 that Walker had pointed a pistol at her head before saying: "I'm going to blow your f--- brains out."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August that Myka Dean, Walker's ex-girlfriend, told police in 2012 that when she tried to end her relationship with Walker, he threatened to "blow her head off" and then kill himself.
Dean described the alleged threats made by Walker to authorities in Irving, Texas. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the police report. No charges were filed against Walker.
Walker denies the accusations.
"These baseless allegations are surfacing a decade later purely for political mudslinging, which is irresponsible and wrong," Walker campaign spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in a statement to the Journal-Constitution after the story published.
Walker is president and chief executive of Renaissance Man Food Services, a large distributor of pork, chicken and bakery products to food service and retail marketplace across the United States. But the company appears to be nowhere near as successful as Walker claims, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Walker has repeatedly claimed that Renaissance employs hundreds of people and grosses $70 million to $80 million annually in sales. But when the company applied for - and received - a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan last year, it reported only eight employees.
And according to recent court filings, Walker's company averaged about $1.5 million a year over the last decade. In the same case, Walker's business associates claimed that the candidate doesn't actually own food processing plants as he has said but instead licenses his name to businesses in a way that is somewhat similar to how Trump has built his business empire.
Walker has repeatedly been at war with business associates ranging from incorrectly billing partners to a Texas bank suing the candidate for hundreds of thousands in unpaid debts, the AP reported.
The Walker campaign had no immediate comment.
Some GOP senators seemed unconcerned with Walker's background.
"Americans are pretty forgiving," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told HuffPost on Oct. 6. "I don't think that's a deal breaker. I actually think he's quite a good candidate."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault, said Georgia voters will determine if Walker's "baggage" is disqualifying.
"We'll take it up after we get through those primaries," she told HuffPost.
Walker was recently criticized after a fundraiser being held in his honor featured an anti-vaccine design resembling a swatiska, a Nazi symbol, on the donor's Twitter profile. The fundraiser was canceled after an outcry.