Analysis: What’s next for Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race?
In the space of the last 48 hours, the Georgia Senate race was buffeted by two massive stories.
First came a Daily Beast report that Walker had paid for a woman’s abortion after the two conceived a child while they were dating in 2009. CNN has not independently verified the allegations and Walker vehemently denied the report, insisting that it was a “defamatory lie.” Walker has been outspoken in his opposition to abortion throughout the campaign.
Then Walker’s son, Christian, a conservative online influencer, posted a series of tweets that said Walker was something short of a model father.
“I don’t care about someone who has a bad past and takes accountability,” Christian Walker wrote. “But how DARE YOU LIE and act as though you’re some ‘moral, Christian, upright man.”
Walker responded to his son this way: “I LOVE my son no matter what.” Christian Walker also posted a video on Twitter Tuesday morning in which he said he was done with his father’s “lies.”
Those twin developments create deep uncertainty in the race between Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, which is widely seen as one of the most important (and closest) Senate contests in the country.
So, what’s next?
That’s hard to tell – mostly because we live in a post-Donald Trump world.
Typically in situations like this, the candidate would do some sort of interview, usually with a friendly media outlet. That’s the route Walker took, sitting down for two interviews with Fox News since the story broke.
The candidate’s campaign now has to do several things at once:
1) Try to reassure donors and voters that this is all overblown, and that the campaign remains laser-focused on what they need to do to win.
2) Ensure that there are no other shoes to drop – and that Walker’s total denial on the abortion charge can be made to stick.
But, as if you needed a reminder, we are not in normal times.
Just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, an “Access Hollywood” tape emerged that showed Trump speaking in lewd and crude terms about women and bragging about sexual assault. There was talk – publicly and privately – among Republican leaders at the time about him dropping out of the race or entirely disowning his candidacy.
Neither happened. Trump dismissed the whole incident as “locker room talk” and went on to defeat Hillary Clinton. Which, even in retrospect, is a stunning turn of events.
The question is whether Trump fundamentally rewrote the rules of political scandals in 2016 or if he is simply the very rare exception to this still-existing rule.
Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise referenced the “Access Hollywood” episode in a speech to staff after the Walker news broke. “Trump still made it to the White House,” Paradise said, a source familiar with the remarks told CNN. (Paradise, via Twitter, denied making that comparison.)
So far, Republicans are closing ranks around Walker.
“Herschel Walker is being slandered and maligned by the Fake News Media and, obviously, the Democrats,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday. “They are trying to destroy a man who has true greatness in his future, just as he had athletic greatness in his past.”
“Full speed ahead in Georgia,” said Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund, a major GOP super PAC focused on Senate races.
The Republican support for Walker is, in some ways, forced upon the party. There are now less than five weeks left in the midterm election and dumping him as their candidate at this point – or distancing themselves from him – would almost certainly cost them a seat they badly need for the majority. It’s realpolitik at its finest.
Of course, if more allegations come to light or if Walker looks so damaged that he can’t win, history suggests that the support he currently enjoys could erode quickly.
The controversy surrounding Walker functions as a very interesting test case for how scandals will be handled by campaigns and processed by voters in the post-Trump era. Can Walker just keep campaigning as though nothing has changed? Or does he need a full plan to ensure he remains a viable candidate?