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Will the Herschel Walker Allegations Actually Matter?

Why this Herschel Walker episode could be decisive: It’s largely because of the 50-50 nature of Georgia politics.
Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

I don’t think there’s a question I’m asked more often than: “Will this matter” on Election Day?

Usually, the question follows the latest gaffe or breaking news that casts a candidate in a bad light. And usually, my answer is, “No, it will not matter” — or at least a version of “no.” The country is deeply polarized, and voters have a short memory.

This week, I’ve been getting that question about the Georgia Senate race. As you’ve probably heard, the Republican nominee Herschel Walker reportedly paid a woman to have an abortion. The woman, who shared her story with The Daily Beast, said she was not only an ex-girlfriend, but also the mother of one of Mr. Walker’s children. Mr. Walker has denied the allegation.

It’s too soon to look to polling to judge the political fallout. So far, there has been only one survey fielded entirely since the allegations, covering only one day. That poll, an Insider Advantage survey, showed the Democrat Raphael Warnock up by three points, which does happen to be an improvement for Mr. Warnock compared with its prior poll. Mr. Walker led that one by four points. (State polling is infrequent, so it’s hard to say when we’ll get a better sense from the polls about how or whether the allegations have changed voters’ views.)

But regardless of what the next surveys say, I think my short answer to the familiar “will this matter” question is “yes” — or at least a version of “yes.”

That’s not because this represents the absolute worst case for Mr. Walker. His success is so vital to his party — in its chances to retake the Senate — that his fellow Republicans are unlikely to throw him overboard.

From the standpoint of the party, this might be more like Donald J. Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016 than the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin after his “legitimate rape” comments in 2012. Although denying the allegations of paying for an abortion carries its own risks, it does mean that his party has a way to avoid criticizing him directly. That’s something different from the cases of Mr. Akin or Mr. Trump, who each were captured on tape and so Republicans had to respond to shared facts.

One factor that cuts in both directions: The news reinforces a pre-existing narrative about Mr. Walker, who has recently acknowledged he was the father of several children he had not previously mentioned publicly. But for that same reason, he may have already incurred most of the potential reputational damage before this allegation.

There’s one other thing that’s odd about this scandal: The voters likeliest to find paying for abortion to be deeply repugnant are also likeliest to be solidly Republican. Many lower-turnout, persuadable or swing voters, in contrast, may be relatively likely to support abortion rights, and may not find this as offensive as another scandal. Hypocrisy is not an unusual accusation for a politician, after all.

And yet I’m still inclined to say “yes,” this might really matter. And that’s largely because of the circumstances.

First, this was the closest state in the country in 2020: President Biden won Georgia by two-tenths of a point. On paper, this was always likely to be a tight contest — a Democratic incumbent was running in a midterm year in a state slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole. Indeed, the polls showed a very close race (with Mr. Warnock ahead) before the allegations.

So in this case, even a modest effect — smaller than a point or two — could be important.

Second is the possibility of a runoff election. As you may remember from 2020, Georgia holds runoff elections if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote on Election Day. This race has long seemed poised to go to a runoff (there is a Libertarian candidate, and the Libertarian usually receives a couple of points in Georgia).

For Mr. Walker, the runoff would carry some risk and reward. The possible upside: It will be further from this week’s allegations. The downside is that there won’t be anyone else to help carry him to victory. The state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, is seemingly likely to defeat Stacey Abrams outright, so a hypothetical Walker-Warnock runoff is likely to be the top of the ticket — the major reason to show up and vote. In the Nov. 8 election by contrast, Mr. Walker may benefit from Kemp supporters and other general election regulars who may reluctantly vote for Mr. Walker, but might not have shown up on his account.

If Mr. Walker can’t move past these allegations, would he really be able to get the same Republican turnout he would have otherwise? Wouldn’t Democrats be more motivated to stop him from taking office? Here, the analogy that might be most promising for Democrats is Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who lost a special election for Senate after numerous women, including several teenagers, accused him of sexual misconduct.

I don’t want to start a new Olympic event in “political scandals” for judging Mr. Moore and Mr. Walker. What’s relevant is that Democrats enjoyed a very considerable turnout advantage in that Alabama election, the kind of advantage that can really only happen in a low-turnout special election.

The possibility that control of the Senate might be on the line would certainly mitigate the risk of a total collapse in Republican turnout in a runoff. But if the race is as close as the polls and recent electoral history suggest, the scandal might be decisive even if one in 50 would-be Walker voters decide they just don’t need to go out of their way to send him to Washington.

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