Pay Dirt is a weekly foray into the political fundraising pigsty. Subscribe here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
As college football legend Herschel Walker prepared to enter the Georgia Senate race in 2021, people close to him tried to talk him out of it, including his own wife.
It was risky, many people advised. They knew the secrets hidden in Walker’s past could hurt his highly profitable brand. And it was impossible to know whether he would win or lose.
But according to five former campaign officials and advisers, Walker’s wife, Julie Blanchard, quickly became the most vocal champion of his Senate bid, only changing her tune after she saw an opportunity to take personal advantage of the official campaign affairs.
Blanchard’s plan, according to these campaign sources, was to collect a commission from the campaign’s media buys. Essentially, according to these sources, Blanchard thought she could make a deal with a media company that employed a friend of hers and then collect a percentage of the profits through a private deal.
“It was clear from that moment that Julie was going to be in charge,” a former adviser told The Daily Beast, echoing staff observations in numerous news reports. “What’s dangerous is that she had no idea what she was doing. She also has the worst political instincts of anyone I’ve ever met, and that’s a dangerous combination. He was clear that she was just driven by, ‘How can I control it? How can I make money?’
But Blanchard’s bet never materialized, these sources said, largely because the campaign frustrated its attempts to carry out the scheme, but also because it never reached a deal with the media company.
Blanchard – who dated Walker for more than a decade before marrying her in March 2021, about five months before announcing his candidacy – was a powerful and ubiquitous campaign figure from the start. But his inexperienced advice has more often than not made things more difficult for the campaign.
Blanchard, believing Walker could get 50% of the black vote, wanted the campaign to pump money into urban radio, three sources told The Daily Beast. Senior GOP operatives have pointed out that in poll after poll there was little hope of making inroads with black voters and that money was better spent courting other demographics.
“Julie wanted Cardi B on the campaign trail,” another staffer previously told The Daily Beast, referring to the liberal Bronx hip-hop star. “The person who sings ‘Wet Ass Pussy,’ and you want to put her on the campaign trail to appeal to conservatives, just because she tweeted that we are in a recession? »
(Walker ultimately claimed 8% of the black vote, according to CNN exit polls.)
But it was only after Blanchard’s worries that a Senate campaign would hurt Walker’s earning potential were allayed that she seemed to transform from a cautious voice of reason into a staunch defender of her Senate candidacy, according to two people with direct knowledge of those early discussions.
Walker and Blanchard worried that the legal requirements and restrictions that come with running a campaign for federal office could squeeze their cash flow, according to the five campaign sources. All five sources are aware of the internal campaign discussions but would only speak to The Daily Beast on the condition that their names not be printed.
One of the main concerns, according to all of these sources, was the inevitable hit to Walker’s public speaking engagements and endorsement deals. Those gigs had provided the couple with a steady stream of income for years, and neither wanted to see it dry up – during the campaign, or potentially after.
And Walker officials and outside advisers warned Walker early on of potential conflicts.
“He gets paid to talk about himself and be a brand ambassador, but he wouldn’t have that opportunity as a job candidate,” a former adviser told The Daily Beast. “If you win, you won’t get it as a senator, and if you lose, you won’t get it because you’ll be tarnished.”
“There were some concerns about that,” another official said, referring to the speeches. “First, the campaign had no ability to control what he was saying and there was a chance his remarks would be recorded. Second, there were timing issues with a Senate campaign. Finally, you couldn’t take the risk that he appears to be using paid speeches to advance a campaign.
The couple, however, generally ignored this advice. Three campaign sources said Walker and Blanchard – who had long acted as Walker’s business manager – were becoming increasingly stealthy about his public appearances.
Walker’s financial disclosures showed his gigs continued through the summer of 2022, though the regularity has waned a bit. In the months leading up to her August 2021 candidacy announcement, Walker reported nine payouts for paid appearances, totaling $236,000. In the same approximate time frame for 2022, it grossed seven gigs, for $221,000.
Blanchard also had more general fears about Walker in the race, four of the people said, specifically that some skeletons in Walker’s closet would come out.
“She was absolutely adamant he didn’t show up in the first place,” a former Walker adviser told The Daily Beast. “Categorical.”
But according to two sources with direct knowledge of discussions during the campaign’s formative days, once Blanchard figured out how much money the campaign would bring in, she changed her mind.
“One day in a meeting, she suddenly made it clear to us that she thought she could get points on media buys,” a source said, claiming that Blanchard had planned to bribe him. one of his companies. “If this was going to be a $100 million operation, then in her mind, she deserved to get some of that money.”
Four of the sources said Blanchard had repeatedly tried to direct campaign contracts to ICON International, which employed a friend she had known from when she sold billboards at CBS Outdoor more than a decade ago. . But while that friend – Andy Campbell – had a media background, neither he nor his company had experience in the political sphere, according to the four people.
“We kept telling him it didn’t make sense to hire them for this,” a former top adviser told The Daily Beast.
The campaign never contracted with Campbell or ICON, opting instead for trusted political firms, as evidenced by campaign materials filed with the Federal Election Commission. However, on Dec. 18, 2022, 12 days after Walker conceded runoff loss to Democratic opponent Raphael Warnock, Campbell received a $5,500 payout for “advertising” during the runoff.
Walker and Blanchard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Called for comment, Campbell told The Daily Beast he was “totally unaware” of Blanchard’s alleged plan. He added that it seemed “implausible” that Blanchard, with her own background in media, thought she could take a commission from an international company like ICON. He also pointed out that ICON had never done business with the campaign.
But Campbell acknowledged conducting an independent review of the campaign’s media strategy on Blanchard’s behalf. That review, he said, took place in the weeks leading up to the November general election — not, as the campaign spending report indicates, during the runoff.
“We’ve been best friends for years. Julie asked me to check out their purchases to see my opinion on how well they did as a media professional,” Campbell told The Daily Beast. “They were using outdated Nielsen books , and I told Julie they should use accurate scoring books.”
Campbell went on to say that he made recommendations to the station “for their media company to change based on updated information.”
“I never bought any media for their campaign or ever planned to,” he wrote in a text message. “It was just suggestions/changes to make for his media business.”
Campaign finance expert Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of watchdog group Documented, told The Daily Beast that bribing a candidate’s spouse could violate the ban on personal use of campaign funds. and could also constitute a violation of declaration.
“Campaign funds cannot be used for anyone’s personal benefit,” Fischer said. “Candidates should exercise caution when hiring family members or friends. Any payments to family members must be at fair market value.
Fischer added that violations would depend on the facts of each case, such as whether the provider typically pays referral fees and whether the commission follows similar referrals.
“But if the vendor does not generally offer a sponsorship fee, then paying a bribe to the candidate’s spouse would likely violate the prohibition on personal use of campaign funds,” Fischer said.
Either way, despite Blanchard’s wishes, the plan didn’t work out, and as a result, there was never a backlash.
Final FEC reports from the campaign show a debt of $158,000 to Texas-based media entrepreneur Scott Howell, as well as about $74,000 to a company called Battleground Connect, for text messaging services. Battleground Connect is owned by Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise and is one of a handful of vendors the campaign has hired for the service.
Campbell’s independent audit reflects some of the paranoia both Blanchard and Walker have exhibited about the campaign’s contract decisions, as described by the five sources. They seemed to approve and even intensify this paranoia in each other.
“They would only be feeding their worst instincts,” a former adviser told The Daily Beast, an observation that other sources echoed in interviews. “It was just the worst possible scenario.”