WASHINGTON DC – Herschel Walker, the former American football star standing for a US Senate seat in Georgia, is running on a campaign staunchly opposed to abortion. But he is facing controversy after the Daily Beast reported on 4 October that he had paid for a former girlfriend to have the procedure in 2009. (Herschel has denied the report, calling it a “Democrat attack”.)
Until now, Walker has been essentially tied in the polls with Senator Raphael Warnock, his Democrat opponent. Yet the controversy doesn’t mean his campaign will tank. Consider that Walker has also been accused of domestic violence and was revealed to have fathered three additional children, whom he had not acknowledged prior to the campaign. He has lied about everything from his educational background (he claimed for years to have graduated in the top 1 per cent at the University of Georgia; in fact, he never graduated) to his professional record (he claimed to run a company with hundreds of employees, which turned out to have only been a handful). He also lowered expectations for his own upcoming debate performance on 14 October by telling reporters that he is “not that smart”.
By contrast, his opponent Warnock is a reverend who has championed civil rights in the roughly two years that he’s been a senator. It’s still unclear if the abortion allegation will hurt Walker at the polls, but the fact that he is competitive in the race at all is the result of a confluence of factors: some specific to Georgia, and some that are also playing out in midterm elections across the US.
“The only reason it’s close at all is because of how divided the country is,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior director at the non-profit policy organisation Brennan Center. Walker is competitive, in other words, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s running as a Republican. “Even if you think Walker’s not capable of being a good senator,” said Johnson, “there is a belief – a trust – that he will be a reliable Republican vote for [the Senate minority leader ] Mitch McConnell.” Donald Trump’s presidency, Johnson reminded the New Statesman, is proof that some Republicans are willing to overlook a politician’s shortcomings in order to achieve policy gains.
Though Georgia did choose Joe Biden for president in 2020 and elected two Democratic senators – Warnock and Jon Ossoff – in a run-off election in early 2021, the state could swing for either party in the midterms. All the Democrats who have won recently have done so “narrowly”, pointed out Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory College in Atlanta, Georgia. “You can’t use one election cycle as the signal that Georgia has ‘gone blue’,” said Gillespie. “Sometimes people have gotten a little too excited in terms of what their expectations are.”
To some, Walker’s self-professed lack of intelligence is a drawback.
“Some probably white, college-educated voters who had real qualms about Walker’s preparation are now willing to put those qualms aside,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, describing the tightening of the polls. “They want to see a Republican-controlled Senate.” That is to say that some of Walker’s more distinctive “qualities” as a candidate are to be overlooked.
But to others, those qualities are relatable, maybe even appealing. And Walker, in describing himself as not very smart, isn’t just trying to keep expectations low but appealing to a certain sector of voters. “Walker’s basically saying, ‘Warnock is very smart. He’s a preacher. A city slicker,’” said Johnson. “‘Me, I’m just a country boy. I just believe in the lord and I work hard and I’m going to do the best that I can.’” And for some in a southern, heavily rural state like Georgia, that’s attractive.
Johnson told the New Statesman he “couldn’t believe [Walker] would say that [he wasn’t that smart] out loud”. Like Walker, Johnson is black, Christian and from the south. “You would never admit to not being up to the task.”
Yet Walker likely isn’t trying to appeal to black voters. There may have been some assumptions, particularly in the Republican strategist camp, that Walker would peel off black voters. But “the idea that Walker could do significantly better [with black voters than a white candidate]… ignores the fact that black voters are Democrats”, said Gillespie, adding that Warnock, the Democratic candidate, is also black.
Gillespie also noted that Walker didn’t seem to be trying especially hard to court black voters. Walker, for example, has said that discussing race and racism is divisive. “Race matters to the community,” Gillespie said. “For Walker to act like racism isn’t a problem… [it is] a recipe for not resonating [with those voters].”
There’s a constituency in Georgia whose vote is more uncertain: women, and white women in particular. The Republican stance on abortion offers an opportunity to offset the so-called enthusiasm gap – the advantage Republicans have by virtue of the fact that they currently do not have the White House or either house in Congress.
“I think this has the potential to dissuade some white, college-educated voters, especially women, who think of themselves as Republicans,” said Bullock. These are women who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Trump but were gravitating back to the Republican Party. The Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, as well as anti-abortion legislation that’s been enacted in states across the country since, could make them think, “‘Wait a minute… it’s not just Trump I had problems with,’” Bullock said.
Most Georgians, Bullock believes, wanted Roe to be upheld. But most Georgians do approve of the state’s current legislation, which effectively outlaws abortion after six weeks. “To the extent that Democrats can stress the abortion issue, it should resonate with most Georgians.” Walker, on the other hand, has not only campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate, he’s also pushed for a nationwide abortion ban without any exceptions – even in the case of rape or incest. The latest controversy could work to highlight just how extreme Walker’s professed beliefs on the issue are in the minds of voters.
It’s not just Georgians – white, black, women or men – who are invested in the outcome of this midterm race. It was Georgia’s two Senate seats that gave the Democrats their majority in 2021. Whichever party wins Georgia could control the Senate – and therefore the country.