Southern Democrats, Rockefeller Republicans, campaign-ending disasters: Some things that used to be staples of American politics don’t really exist anymore. That’s the result of an era in which nothing means as much as the letter next to a candidate’s name. With voters viewing the other party as an existential threat to their lives or the republic, they seem willing to overlook nearly any personal failing in the name of partisanship.
A good test of this new rule is coming up in Georgia’s race for U.S. Senate. Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee, is facing yet another uproar after a Daily Beast report last night alleging that Walker encouraged a girlfriend to have an abortion, and paid for it, in 2009. Walker denies the report and threatened to sue, but the woman provided the Beast with a copy of a check from Walker, a receipt from the abortion clinic, and a get-well card signed by Walker. Speaking to Sean Hannity last night, Walker offered vague excuses. “I send money to a lot of people,” he said. “I believe in being generous.”
After the story broke, Walker’s son Christian, a young MAGA influencer in his own right, unloaded on his father on social media. “Family values, people? He has four kids, four different women, wasn’t in the house raising one of them,” he said in a video. “He was out having sex with other women. Do you care about family values?”
The elder Walker’s personal life is not merely lurid but relevant to the race because he has positioned himself as a champion of total prohibition of abortions, including in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
The yawning hypocrisy between Walker’s policy ideas and his own behavior is one symptom of a Republican Party in flux on social issues, and particularly on abortion. In the 1980s and 1990s, the evangelical Christian movement placed conservative social issues, especially abortion, at the heart of the Republican agenda. Not every politician who espoused these views lived them—witness the many GOP participants who condemned Bill Clinton’s philandering despite their own—but their hypocrisy was a political liability.
Republicans now find themselves in a more confusing moment. For one thing, conservatives are struggling to choose a path forward from their long-awaited victory in overturning Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court. Do they leave abortion policy to the states? Pursue a national ban? De-emphasize the issue amid voter backlash?
More broadly, however, the party faces the quandary of Donald Trump, a man who delivered the conservative Court that overturned Roe after years of failed promises by Republican politicians to do so, and yet who is a chronically dishonest, thrice-married, philandering sexual harasser who backed abortion rights in recent memory and is not religious. Walker followed Trump in combining the censoriousness of the Moral Majority with a total lack of personal moral code.
These kinds of tensions are emblematic of an era when both parties view the other as a grave danger to their way of life and even life itself. If you are convinced that the most important thing is simply keeping the other party out of power, instead of staying home, voting for the other party, or holding your nose about unsavory candidates, you may be more likely to vigorously defend and advocate for them.
Not so long ago, things were different. In 2012, two prominent cases occurred in Senate races that Republicans were expected to win. Both involved exceptions for rape in abortion bans. In Indiana, Richard Mourdock defeated incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in the GOP primary and was poised to go to the Senate when he was asked in a debate about whether abortion laws should have exceptions in the case of rape. Mourdock said no: “In that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” In Missouri, Representative Todd Akin seemed on course to defeat Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill when he commented that pregnancy was rare in the case of rape: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Though a number of Republicans now openly support bans without exceptions, these views were considered extreme at the time, and the specific sentiments toxic. Both men saw their support collapse. In the end, Mourdock lost to the Democrat Joe Donnelly by almost six points, and Akin to McCaskill by more than 15. Neither state has come close to electing a Democrat to the Senate since.
The turning point came in October 2016, when The Washington Post obtained a recording of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. Many Republican officials had harbored hesitations about Trump since the primary, and they quickly denounced him and called on him to drop out. But Republican voters demurred. By that stage in the campaign, they had become loyal to Trump, and many viewed Hillary Clinton as an existential threat to their way of life. (Trump had convinced them in large part by pointing to the importance of judicial nominations.)
Trump survived the moment, won the race, and established a new precedent of rallying behind a candidate, no matter his flaws, if he could beat the other guy. This doesn’t mean that politicians are scandal-proof, exactly, but it does mean that they have to be defeated in the primary elections (like Eric Greitens in this year’s Missouri U.S. Senate race, or Representative Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina, both Republicans) or else forced out when a member of the same party is certain to replace them (like former Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats).
Failing that, a party will close its eyes and think of majorities, as the GOP has with Walker, whose sole apparent qualifications are a legendary football career at the University of Georgia and an endorsement from Trump. His campaign has been a series of disclosures that might have ended a candidacy once upon a time: He allegedly held a pistol to his ex-wife’s head. Despite championing family values, he fathered three children out of wedlock and tried to conceal their existence. He claimed that he graduated near the top of his class at UGA, when in fact he didn’t graduate at all. His various enterprises seem to have mostly been scams or boondoggles. He has been unable to explain basic policy ideas; offered incoherent, nonsensical commentaries on pollution; and complained that there are already too many trees to plant more.
I could go on, but why bother? No matter how many scandals emerge, they have not shaken Republican officials, who were cool to his candidacy at the start but quickly lined up once he’d won the nomination.
And today, they’re once again rallying behind Walker. Trump was most aggressive in defense of his protégé, writing in a statement, “Herschel Walker is being slandered and maligned by the Fake News Media and obviously, the Democrats … They are trying to destroy a man who has true greatness in his future, just as he had athletic greatness in his past.”
Senator Rick Scott, who heads the Republican Senate campaign wing, said that “Republicans stand with him.” Scott and other conservative and anti-abortion groups dutifully noted that Walker had denied the allegations, as though his denials were especially persuasive or as though he’d earned the benefit of the doubt. At a luncheon today (the media was barred, naturally), Walker reportedly received a long ovation.
The reason for these contortions is not hard to see: Control of the Senate is up for grabs, a single seat could be all the difference, and Senator Raphael Warnock is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection this year. No matter how repugnant Walker might seem, the stakes of abandoning him to his fate and letting Democrats win are too painful to imagine.
It’s too early to assess how voters will react to the news, but the race is very tight. RealClearPolitics’ polling average has Warnock with a small lead, even as Governor Brian Kemp has a significant lead over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. That implies the earlier disclosures about Walker have damaged but not sunk him, which makes sense in the post-2016 paradigm: Georgia is closely divided, and Republican voters have an acute sense of the stakes of the race. That suggests Walker is unlikely to share the fate of Akin or Mourdock; this latest scandal may erode some support, but it won’t instantly torpedo his chances. Perhaps a GOP wave will carry him to victory in November, or perhaps the disastrous campaign will give Warnock a narrow win. But given Walker’s résumé, the race shouldn’t be close at all. A tight result in either direction will send the same message about politics in contemporary America, and one that a former star athlete is an apt messenger to deliver: Nothing matters except beating the other team.