Opinion

Herschel Walker's abortion controversy and the fight for Senate control

The Daily Beast reported this week that Georgia GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker, who supports banning abortion, once urged a girlfriend to get an abortion and paid for it. The woman provided a canceled check and get-well card from Walker as proof. Walker called the report a lie, and the nation's most powerful Republicans rallied behind him. Former President Donald Trump said Walker, once a beloved University of Georgia football star, "is being slandered and maligned." Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the Senate GOP's campaign arm, said Democrats are afraid Walker will beat incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and help Republicans win control of the Senate, so they "have cranked up the smear machine." Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel called the report "an attempt to distract from Warnock's record."

It's easy to understand why Walker, a former NFL player and Donald Trump's hand-picked Georgia Senate candidate, matters so much. The Senate is evenly split 50-50, but controlled by Democrats thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. If Republicans can score a net gain of just one seat in next month's midterms, they get the gavel. And Warnock, running for reelection in a state where the GOP remains strong, is one of the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Aggregated polls show him just two percentage points ahead of Walker. Polling analysts at FiveThirtyEight have calculated that if Walker wins in Georgia, Republicans have a 60-in-100 chance to win the Senate. If Warnock wins, Democrats have an 89-in-100 chance of retaining control. How has The Daily Beast's bombshell affected the fight for Senate control?

This is a major setback for the GOP

Walker has never been "a nimble candidate," says Amanda Marcotte at Salon. But even by the former NFL player's low standards, this was "a major fumble." His own son is calling him a liar, and the woman in question now says she is the mother of one of Walker's kids. Since "the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, the decision used by the Trump-shaped Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade," abortion has been the issue that changed the game, rallying voters, especially women, behind Democrats fighting for abortion rights and giving Democrats hope they can limit or avoid the usual losses for a new president's party in the midterms. Walker, who has already faced credible allegations of domestic violence and fathering children out of wedlock, has put abortion rights front and center in the campaign's final stretch. "It certainly sounds like there's an irresponsible person in this extremely typical abortion story. But it's not the woman who had the abortion."

In the eyes of Republicans, like Walker, who believe that abortion is murder, Walker's ex is accusing him of "financing the execution of his own baby," says Steve Benen at MSNBC's MaddowBlog. Republicans are willing to abandon such a "cringe-worthy" candidate when it suits them. Look at how fast the National Republican Congressional Committee cut off Ohio congressional candidate J.R. Majewski when he was caught making sketchy claims about his military service. But he's running for the House, where the GOP expects to win a majority with or without him. Republicans are throwing their family values out the window for Walker. With Senate control at stake, they see him as "too big to fail."

The belief Walker is being smeared might help Republicans

If anything, the early indications are that this is helping Walker's campaign, says John Gizzi at Newsmax. In the 36 hours after The Daily Beast disclosed the allegation, "which Walker branded false, the onetime University of Georgia football great had what his campaign called a 'record-breaking' fund-raising day: $182,000, $50,000 of which came in during Walker's appearances on Sean Hannity's TV program to answer the charges" in front of millions of Fox News viewers. National Republicans are showing the same "unbending support."

This won't cost Walker GOP votes

Picking Walker over Warnock is still an easy decision for the GOP base, says Henry Olsen in The Washington Post. "Warnock is a solidly progressive Democrat who has largely backed his party's agenda. That's disqualifying for any partisan Republican. Warnock also unreservedly supports abortion rights, even reiterating his support for them in responding to Monday's bombshell report." Besides, Walker is not the only politician "trying to live down embarrassing" stories. Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman "detained an unarmed Black jogger with a shotgun in 2013." And "let's not forget the Republicans' tortured defenses of the extremely flawed Donald Trump," who deflected negative reporting all the way to the White House.

Walker's campaign manager has made the same point, says Frank Bruni in The New York Times, noting that Trump got blindsided with that Access Hollywood tape with the 2016 election looming and still won. "Is this the new G.O.P. pep talk? Buck up, folks, if we could propel a professed and proud groper of women's genitals across the finish line, we can rescue any ethical delinquent!" By this logic, the only takeaway from something as damning as Trump's Access Hollywood tape is that it proves to the GOP base "that desperate Democrats will do anything to try to destroy a Republican candidate but won't necessarily succeed." That transforms what should be a scandal "from source of shame to badge of honor, from bombshell to balm." Their fans see the contents of the abortion claim about Walker, and Trump's tape, in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women, "are peripheral piffle." 

So far, this doesn't change the math

The latest revelations about Walker haven't changed the odds in the Georgia Senate race, "at least not yet," says Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. He's accused of doing something hypocritical, not illegal. The distinction matters to voters. More importantly, Walker has already been hit with "multiple previous scandals," including an ex-wife accusing him of threatening to kill her, reports of three previously unacknowledged children, and various business and personal misdeeds. "Democrats have been airing ads for weeks reminding voters of Walker's past scandals," and Warnock's polling lead has remained thin. There's still time for some voters to switch sides before Election Day. But if you were going to jump ship, you'd probably have done it already.

We'll soon see whether Walker's "enormous reservoir of goodwill holds after the latest allegation," says Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal. But his race is just one of four considered critical in the fight for Senate control. Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt is challenging Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto for another seat Republicans hope to flip. But in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democrats are hoping to snatch seats now in GOP hands. "To win, the GOP candidates don't need to be the most popular, just more in tune with what voters care about" Republicans have reasons for optimism, judging by the polls. But "key races ar.e still up in the air. The next 4 1/2 weeks will be rocky, and Nov. 8 a long night."

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