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Herschel Walker and the Plight of the True Conservative Voter

There's no good option for conservative voters in Georgia this election.

Illustration of Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

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If ever there were a time and place for a thoughtful, patriotic conservative to vote third party or perhaps even vote for a reasonable Democrat, it’s the 2022 election in Georgia. Herschel Walker’s past is, if possible, even more checkered than Donald Trump’s. After all, no one ever claimed that Trump threatened one of his ex-wives with a gun.

Recent evidence that Walker paid for an abortion is just one more revelation about his thoroughly debauched past. Yet personal scandal is hardly the only problem with Walker. He has a long record of election denial and false claims of mass election fraud. Every voter should presume that Walker, if he wins, will do exactly what Trump demands.

Moreover, Walker’s personal failings aside, there is an overwhelming case that these are not ordinary times, and that the 2022 election is not an ordinary election. So thoughtful, patriotic conservatives should swallow hard, forsake the policy victories they hope for with a Republican Congress, and either stay home or vote Democratic, right?

If that’s the argument, someone needs to tell the Democratic Party what’s at stake. Because right now, it’s making an unsustainable demand of Republican voters: You sacrifice the policies that you believe are best for our nation and its people; we sacrifice nothing.

There’s no better example of this approach than Raphael Warnock’s stance on abortion rights. He was one of 49 Democratic senators who voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act. This bill doesn’t just “codify Roe.” It would preempt hundreds of state laws that existed before the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs, including, for example, waiting periods, 20-week abortion bans, and ultrasound requirements.

It would permit pre-viability abortion for any reason. It would allow for even post-viability abortion to protect the life or health of the mother, where health isn’t limited to physical health. That leaves the health exception broad enough to include permitting late-term abortion if just one health-care provider concurs with the mother that her emotional or psychological health is at stake.

If that law were to pass, America would immediately become an outlier nation on abortion rights, more permissive than the overwhelming majority of its peer countries in the developed world. And Warnock voted to stop a Republican filibuster against this bill even though Georgia—one of the nation’s more religious states—is so anti-abortion that it enacted a heartbeat bill before the Supreme Court decided Dobbs.

Think of the dilemma for thoughtful conservatives, particularly those who are deeply anti-abortion. Vote for the spouse-abusing election denier? Vote for the man who’s diametrically opposed to you on a life-and-death issue that is more important to you than any other? Or vote for someone else, knowing that you’re costing the GOP your normally reliable vote?

Versions of this dilemma are being put before GOP voters in different races across the country. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania recently and explicitly reaffirmed that he doesn’t support any limits on abortion rights. In his view, the decision should be between a woman and her doctor at every stage of pregnancy.

What makes these stands all the more extraordinary is that they’re actually unpopular. For example, a recent Harvard/Harris poll indicated that 37 percent of Americans would support banning abortion except in cases of rape and incest; another 12 percent supported bans beyond six weeks. That left only 28 percent of Americans who supported abortion rights beyond 15 weeks. Gallup polling has long demonstrated strong opposition to legal abortion in the third trimester and solid majorities against legal abortion in the second trimester (at the same time, large majorities support legal abortion in the first three months of pregnancy).

Right now the message to conservative anti-abortion voters is that they should risk a potential policy loss on what is for many of them their single most important issue, because the republic could be at risk. Yet, key Democrats—sensing opportunity in the weakness of Walker, or of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania—are refusing to compromise on that same issue.

They’re even using the moment to push an unpopular position on the most contentious issue in the culture wars. They see the Republican crisis as more of an opportunity than a risk to our national union.

There is no moral standing to scorn Republicans for refusing to risk their preferred policies for the sake of democracy if prominent Democrats are doing the exact same thing. Compounding the challenge is the knowledge that Democrats poured millions of dollars into ad campaigns to try to persuade Republicans to vote for extremists in GOP primaries. Is democracy at stake, or not?

I happen to believe that it is. I watched the events of January 6 and knew that they represented the most dangerous moment in modern American political history. Revelations since the attack on the Capitol have only reaffirmed that danger. If Mike Pence had said yes to Trump’s scheme, our nation would have been plunged into the worst constitutional crisis since 1861.

Defenders of democracy are in need of allies. And though I understand that millions of Republicans will vote for a Trump loyalist no matter the character of the man or woman on the ballot, a substantial number of conservative voters are deeply troubled by the party’s dark turn. They understand all too well the vital importance of character in American politics. And yet they are left with no good choices.

Opposition to Trump or concerns about election conspiracies don’t make them any less anti-abortion, and the unwillingness of Democrats to compromise tears conscientious conservatives in two. So don’t be surprised if some voters still bite the bullet and vote for policy over character. In my view, that’s a potentially catastrophic mistake (character should never be optional), but it’s a mistake made all the more likely and understandable when the opposing party wants to take your vote—and give you nothing in return.