Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is backing former football star Herschel Walker's Senate bid in Georgia, the latest sign that the Republican establishment is aligning behind Walker despite having serious doubts about the GOP candidate's viability.

"I am happy to endorse Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate in Georgia," McConnell said in a statement Wednesday. "Herschel is the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate. I look forward to working with Herschel in Washington to get the job done."

Next year's Senate race in Georgia is a key opportunity for the GOP to pick up a seat and gain a majority in the chamber.

Walker is running for the chance to take on first-term Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won the seat in a runoff at the beginning of the year. Walker announced his candidacy in August after public encouragement from former President Donald Trump and raised $3.7 million in the five weeks after launching his bid.

The endorsement marks a complete evolution in McConnell's thinking on Walker.

Over the summer, before Walker entered the race, McConnell had privately expressed concerns with his potential candidacy.

He sought to recruit former Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to run again after their narrow losses in January's runoff elections. And some of his allies sent a clear message in the press that McConnell viewed Walker as a dangerous gamble for Republicans.

But even after a string of negative stories about the former football star, including accusations that he threatened and abused women, Walker officially joined the race in late August. Days later, Trump endorsed him.

These developments forced McConnell to recalibrate his approach to the Republican primary in the Peach State. While some establishment Republicans still held out hope McConnell might consider backing a Walker opponent, the GOP leader's stance toward Trump's favored candidate clearly softened.

Last month, McConnell downplayed the allegations of abuse against Walker in an interview with Politico.

"There are some things written that indicate he's had some challenges in his life. On the other hand, the good news is, he's made several impressive performances on national television," McConnell told Politico, adding, "I think there's every indication he's going to be a good candidate."

The table was set for McConnell to back Walker after Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in Senate leadership, endorsed Walker on Monday.

One Republican operative told CNN on Wednesday that the Walker endorsement was a sign that McConnell was simply "embracing the inevitable."

Other Republican candidates vying to take on Warnock next year include Georgia agriculture commissioner Gary Black, construction firm owner Kelvin King and banking executive and Navy veteran Latham Saddler.

Of these other candidates, only Saddler had raised respectable amounts of money, topping more than $1 million in both the second and third quarters of the year. And none have the name recognition and legendary status of Walker, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Georgia football team.

Still, Walker's nomination would present particular challenges to the party's effort to defeat Warnock.

He has faced allegations that he threatened his ex-wife and other women with violence over the span of a decade. In a 2008 interview with CNN, Walker said he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder, and spoke openly about struggling with mental illness and the violent and disturbing thoughts he had. Walker's campaign has also noted he has received help since his allegedly violent incidents in the early 2000s.

Another allegation, however, surfaced this year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Myka Dean, who told police she had a romantic relationship with Walker, said he had threatened to kill her, according a 2012 police report, CNN reported. Walker's campaign has vehemently denied the claims involving Dean, who died in 2019, and issued a statement of support for Walker from Dean's mother.

McConnell last month downplayed the allegations of abuse against Walker in an interview with Politico.

"There are some things written that indicate he's had some challenges in his life. On the other hand, the good news is, he's made several impressive performances on national television," McConnell told Politico, adding, "I think there's every indication he's going to be a good candidate."

Other Republican candidates vying to take on Warnock next year include Georgia agriculture commissioner Gary Black, construction firm owner Kelvin King and banking executive and Navy veteran Latham Saddler.

The-CNN-Wire

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CNN's Sara Murray contributed to this report.

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