Will an October surprise matter in Georgia? Walker abortion story a midterm test

A report that Georgia Republican Herschel Walker personally paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009, which would seem to be one of the more startling October surprises in recent memory, will test if such scandals matter to voters as much in such a deeply-divided country.

The fiercely anti-abortion former NFL star, who is running for Senate, called The Daily Beast’s story ­— which hasn’t been independently verified by USA TODAY — “a flat-out lie.”

But political observers are wondering if such a bombshell, which in years past might have been a fatal blow for a campaign, will make a difference.

Does the latest Walker scandal change anything?

“Quite frankly, I think any question like that needs to be retired — it’s defunct,” said Kendra Cotton, chief operating officer with the New Georgia Project, a progressive-leaning voting rights group in the Peach State.

“I mean, (the) 2016 (presidential election) showed us that nothing is a game changer, and that anything can be overcome”, she said.

Cotton and others say in a political era defined by former President Donald Trump, who brushed aside similarly personal accusations during his 2016 campaign, even a national bombshell isn’t likely to end Walker’s campaign.

Walker has been beset by multiple controversies surrounding his personal life since announcing his challenge to Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. The race is viewed by many as one of the GOP’s best chances to flip a seat this fall.

With a 50-50 Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, even gaining one seat could shift control of the upper chamber to Republicans.

Former Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican who represented Georgia in Congress, said most Georgians have already made up their minds.

“I do think this is going to hurt Herschel in the long run, if he doesn’t win this seat… but right now, I think there’s a lot of people, whether they are upset with it or not upset with it, will vote for Herschel,” he said.

“I think it’s more voting for a Republican than it is right now voting for an individual.”

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Defying expectations?

What makes this revelation somewhat different, however, is Walker’s son, Christian, a popular conservative political commentator, accusing him on Tuesday of being a liar and blasting conservatives for continuing to support him.

“It’s the hypocrisy of it that is so damning in this situation,” Cotton said.

The Walker campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Walker supports a total ban on abortions, without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, and has criticized absentee fathers.

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Many Republicans who spoke up Tuesday, including Trump, declared the latest controversy nothing more than a “distraction” by Democrats and the media against the embattled contender.

Trump, as a candidate, survived the airing of an “Access Hollywood” recording where he was on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

Walker’s candidacy, much like Trump, has been fueled by his celebrity as a running back for 12 seasons in the NFL and has already weathered allegations that he threatened to kill his ex-wife during their marriage. He has also acknowledged having three additional children whom he has not talked about publicly; his record as a businessman has come under scrutiny, as well.

Westmoreland said much like the former president, Walker could also defy political expectations and overcome this most recent scandal.

“I can’t even imagine another candidate that has been brought out more information on and still be slightly ahead in the polls,” he said. “Anybody else other than Herschel Walker and maybe Donald Trump, I have no idea, but I can’t even imagine.”

Trump, GOP slam ‘distraction’

In a statement Tuesday, Trump said Walker is being “slandered and maligned.”

“They are trying to destroy a man who has true greatness in his future, just as he had athletic greatness in his past,” he said.

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Georgia could decide the Senate majority, so desperate Democrats and liberal media have turned to anonymous sources and character assassination. This is an attempt to distract from Warnock’s record of failure resulting in rising costs and out of control crime. (1/2)

— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) October 4, 2022

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s political arm, said the group will “stand with (Walker).”

Chris Hartline, NRSC spokesman, said they are not viewing the race or map differently.

“It certainly doesn’t change our commitment to winning there, doesn’t change our commitment in terms of spending there,” he said. “We still feel very good that Georgia’s a great opportunity for us to win a seat.”

Faith & Freedom Coalition founder and chairman Ralph Reed, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman who plans to vote in the election, said he believes Walker’s denial.

Reed said he expected voters’ concerns about inflation, which is running at a 40-year high, the economy and other issues to outrank an “unsubstantiated anonymous allegation at the 11th hour of an election.”

Outside groups that are spending heavy amounts said they aren’t giving up on Walker, either.

“We are full speed ahead in Georgia,” Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, told USA TODAY.

The super PAC, which is aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, has carved out more than $34 million in TV ad buys in the state through Election Day.

GOP operatives argue allegations against Walker have already been litigated and that anyone bothered by his past has likely already decided their vote.

Democrats stay quiet

Democrats also say Walker’s scandals have become part of his candidacy — to Warnock’s advantage.

Adam Parkhomenko, a former Democratic National Committee field director, said that allegations against Walker since he became a candidate have become so engrained, “there’s really little to nothing” that Warnock’s campaign needs to say about the latest episode.

“If Herschel Walker continues running the campaign and talking the way that he has been, Raphael Warnock can almost just go in a room, close the door and lock it through November and he’ll continue to go up in the polls and voters will see exactly who Herschel Walker is,” he said.

The Warnock campaign did not respond to USA TODAY request for comment, but during a press gaggle Monday Warnock said he’ll “let the pundits decide how they think it will impact the race.”

Anthony Robinson, political director of the National Democratic Training Committee, said Georgia Democrats should stay the course of turning out their base and showing voters the victories the party has made, despite the most recent Walker scandal.

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“Whatever is happening over in the Walker family or camp, that’s going to happen regardless,” he added. “Because it’s so much bigger than him.”

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said the American public has become inured to political scandals in recent time.

“For better or worse, it’s not a disqualifying thing anymore like it would have been maybe a few generations ago or even a few years ago,” Coleman said. “Since the Trump era, I think a lot of us are just numb to these types of scandals.”

And it could easily backfire on Warnock if he were to directly attack Walker, Coleman said. “His messaging has been often positive lately, and I think if he went too negative on Walker that would be a big contrast,” Coleman said.

Currently, the Crystal Ball is still considering the race a toss-up. “Although if I’m the Warnock campaign today I’d be feeling maybe a little better,” Coleman said.

Cotton, the New Georgia Project leader, said the story could draw in voters who weren’t paying attention.

“People like mess, they like salaciousness,” Cotton said. “So I think what it’s going to do is get a heck of a lot of people who weren’t paying attention to go, ‘what’s going on with Herschel Walker?'”

Evangelicals and the GOP vote

Walker has been one of the more stringent anti-abortion candidates running in the 2022 cycle.

While some Republicans have tried to temper their positions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the former football player has stood firm that he favors prohibiting abortion under all circumstances, including no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.

“Where I grew up, you don’t get an abortion,” Walker said during a roundtable discussion in August.

“Grandma will take care of the baby,” he added. “Where I grew up, my sister would take care of the baby. Where I grew up, that baby will be born because you don’t know what that baby will become.”

But anti-abortion leaders and organizations, such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, indicated Tuesday they aren’t abandoning Walker.

Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for the group, said it stands “firmly alongside” the former football star, and “will continue through Election Day.”

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What will keep the Walker campaign up at night isn’t what right-leaning groups or Republican officials will do in the coming weeks, said University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock, a longtime political science professor, but how conservative voters will react.

“This may give an excuse for a pretty much firmly committed Republican to say ‘Okay, I’m not turning my back on the Republican Party. But this individual candidate is simply someone who I cannot support and remain true to my values’,” Bullock said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Walker abortion story tests if October surprises matter in GA in 2022

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