Fox News host Sean Hannity pulled former NFL star Herschel Walker into the race for U.S. Senate in Georgia, served as his campaign’s biggest asset, and bears responsibility for Republicans ultimately failing to oust Sen. Raphael Warnock, who beat Walker in Tuesday’s runoff.
Walker’s loss is another embarrassing defeat for Fox. The network’s influential prime-time hosts heavily promoted four unorthodox first-time candidates for U.S. Senate in the midterm elections — Walker, Blake Masters in Arizona, Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and J.D. Vance in Ohio — helping them secure the Republican nominations for those races. Vance, the sole victor of the group, ran well behind the rest of his party’s slate in a red state; the other three lost winnable races in swing states, ensuring historic Democratic victories rather than a GOP “red tsunami.”
Hannity is a GOP kingmaker with the ear of top party leaders who spent Donald Trump’s presidency advising the White House. He is a relentless propagandist whose singular goal is electing Republican candidates. But when Hannity gets to pick those candidates, the results can be disastrous for his party.
For the last month, Hannity has been laser-focused on helping Walker to victory in the Georgia runoff. The Fox host has preached the importance of the race to his viewers, shielded the candidate from criticism, promoted his political ads, bolstered his fundraising, and savaged his opponent.
Walker has been a fixture on Hannity’s program even as he has hidden from credible journalists. Of Walker’s 12 weekday appearances on Fox since Election Day, five came on the host’s show — often, bizarrely, accompanied by Hannity regular Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The odd couple returned to the program on the eve of the runoff, with Graham using the opportunity to thank Hannity’s audience for their donations and promising them “a return on investment tomorrow.”
It didn’t turn out that way. And Hannity, who was Walker’s most important press supporter throughout the race, is a big part of the reason why Democrats will have 51 seats in the Senate rather than 50 when it convenes in 2023.
Walker’s introduction to Republican politics came as a regular on Hannity’s show during the 2020 election cycle, when his pro-Trump takes made him a MAGA sensation. Then, after Trump lost and Hannity turned his attention to the 2022 midterms, the Fox host recruited Walker to run against Warnock. In a series of interviews, Hannity urged Walker to seek the Senate seat and pushed other Republicans to support his candidacy.
GOP leaders knew from the start that Walker was a terrible candidate whose nomination would make it harder to win the seat. As I noted on the day he announced his candidacy:
Republicans have plenty of reasons to worry about Walker’s chances of winning a general election in a swing state: He’s a first-time candidate who is moving to the state for the race, he’s a conspiracy theorist, and his wife is currently under investigation by state authorities for allegedly illegally voting in Georgia while living in Texas.
And last month, The Associated Press revealed that the candidate has “repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior.”
Hannity endorsed Walker on-air that very night, and his show became ground zero for the campaign. The candidate made 38 weekday Fox News appearances between his August 25, 2021, launch date and Election Day; 19 of them came on Hannity, including a purported town hall that was functionally a televised rally for Walker. With Trump and Fox both behind Walker, the Georgia primary field cleared for him.
But as Hannity was propping up Walker’s candidacy, GOP fears that he hadn’t been fully vetted were being proved correct. Journalists detailed Walker’s history of domestic violence, his previously unrevealed children, reports that he had paid for abortions, his involvement in scams, and his false claims about his academic, business, and military background.
On Election Day, Republicans won every statewide election in Georgia with at least 51% of the vote — except for the Senate race. There, Warnock secured a narrow lead that threw the race into a runoff, which he ultimately won.
Walker’s defeat makes his campaign the latest case study to demonstrate the limits of Fox’s influence. Its hosts can get their chosen candidates through the party’s primaries. But the toxic extremists who attract Fox stars' interest are often deeply alienating to normal people, and that is making it harder for the GOP to win elections. Meanwhile, the Fox personalities who wield the most influence over the party are pointing fingers at everyone but themselves.
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.