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Opinion Republicans, you can do better than Herschel Walker. Draw a line.

Georgia Republican senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to reporters after a campaign stop in Dawsonville, Ga., on Dec. 5. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

How far has the Republican Party fallen into atavistic tribalism? Voters in Georgia are about to provide an answer. Woe to the nation if it’s the wrong one.

Tuesday’s runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and GOP challenger Herschel Walker is almost a perfect laboratory experiment. Both men are Black. Control of the Senate is no longer at stake. Former president Donald Trump, who inflames passions in both parties, stayed out of the state. There is no other contest on the ballot to help or hinder either candidate’s prospects.

There is only the stark choice between Warnock, who has shown he is competent to be a U.S. senator, and Walker, who manifestly is not. It’s the rare moment when Republicans should be able to abstain from supporting a terrible candidate in good conscience, and in doing so restore a little self-respect and sanity to the national political process. If Walker wins, it will be because Republican voters decided that loyalty to party was more important than having effective representation in the Senate.

It is not as if Georgians are unaware of Walker’s shortcomings. The NBC News exit poll from the Nov. 8 election found that nearly two-thirds of Georgia voters believed Walker lacked good judgment, while fewer than half said the same thing about Warnock. Why vote for someone with bad judgment to be a senator?

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Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a conservative Republican, has said that he could not bring himself to vote for Walker, calling him “one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history.” Those are understated words for Walker, a man who took time to explain to rallygoers why he’d rather be a werewolf than a vampire.

And yet this is a close race, according to the polling averages, which give Warnock a razor-thin lead within surveys’ margins of error. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who won reelection comfortably, and high-profile Republican senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, have all joined Walker on the campaign trail. And despite Walker’s stunning displays of incoherence, his many lies about his purported accomplishments, the credible allegations that he paid women with whom he had relationships to have abortions — despite all those things that once would have imploded a Democratic or Republican candidacy — he still has a chance of winning.

We have become accustomed to cynicism from our politicians. And if Republicans such as Cruz and Graham can live through the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and then scurry to pledge renewed fealty to Trump, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that they would seek to aid Trump’s handpicked Georgia candidate for the Senate, no matter how demeaning the task.

But there is a difference. Trump, for all his insanity, did at least understand and deliver on parts of the Republican agenda — tax cuts for the wealthy, punitive immigration policies, far-right judicial nominees. GOP officials can, and do, try to rationalize their support for him by citing his positions and actions on the issues.

Even by post-Trump standards, however, Walker’s campaign has been markedly devoid of policy. If he has any substantive understanding of any issues at all, he keeps it well hidden.

On Saturday, Walker appeared on Fox News and gave his closing argument:

“Because of Joe Biden, we have these high gas prices. We have these high grocery prices. We have crime in the streets — Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock is a part of that. We have this open border. Men in women’s sports. And this has been done in less than two short years. I don’t know how many more years we can put up with it.”

That’s as deep as it gets — inflation, crime, Joe Biden, culture wars. There are conservative positions on the economy, public safety and immigration that I respect, though I do not share them. Many Georgia Republicans surely hold those principled views. And that is why Tuesday’s vote is such an important test.

In Warnock, they have a senator with whom they might disagree but who effectively represents Georgia’s interests on bread-and-butter issues, works across the aisle with Republicans such as Cruz and goes to the most conservative parts of the state to hear his constituents’ concerns. In Walker, they have a sideshow character who once was a football star.

If GOP voters choose the sideshow, it will be because for them — as for Kemp, Cruz, Graham and the rest of the party establishment — the “R” after Walker’s name and the “D” after Warnock’s are all that matter. It will be because party identity is more important than performance, ability or character.

Georgia Republicans, if they can’t bring themselves to vote for Warnock, can do as Duncan did and abstain. They deserve better than Herschel Walker, and so does the nation. We won’t get it unless Republicans draw a line somewhere.

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