In a normal year, these candidates would be likely to be shunned by the Republican establishment, but the GOP has been put in the position of either supporting them or girding for their potential nomination, thanks to their ties to and even the support of former president Donald Trump.
And these races could determine which party controls the Senate next year. The Senate is split evenly, so Republicans need only a net gain of a single seat gain to retake majority control.
In the past, affairs and/or controversial remarks about sex have contributed to a number of downfalls of Senate candidates on both sides of the aisle. Just two years ago, Democrats lost a race in North Carolina with nominee Cal Cunningham, whose intimate texts with a woman who was not his wife burst into the open in the final days of the election. On the Republican side, a Trump-endorsed Roy Moore lost a Senate race in Alabama after allegations that he made sexual advances to teenage girls decades earlier.
That an ugly backstory is no longer immediately disqualifying in Republican politics is arguably a sign of how much Trump has reshaped the GOP in his likeness. Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite being accused by more than a dozen women of sexual harassment and weeks after it was revealed he bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia.
“Politics has changed,” said one Republican operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “What’s seen as acceptable has changed.”
Success, say some Republicans, depends on these candidates reframing their stories. Can they explain their pasts? Can they hide their pasts? (Some candidates have gone to court to do so.) Can they just avoid talking about it?
But other Republicans are frustrated by the proliferation of this kind of candidate.
“Every Senate race in America should be about one thing and one thing only: How much Biden is struggling,” said another Republican operative. “Instead, these races will be about: Why did you hit your wife? Discuss your divorce.”
“There’s a level of cronyism and dishonesty that is at an all-time high,” this person added, also speaking the condition of anonymity to be candid about the GOP.
But Republicans feel optimistic about their chances of taking back the Senate next year. So perhaps if the party is going to nominate men with controversial backgrounds, this is the year to do it.
So, who are the candidates and what are the allegations, and how could they make Republicans generally politically vulnerable? Here’s a quick review.
Herschel Walker in Georgia: He’s the leading Republican candidate here. The former football star is untested in the political realm and has had Trump’s endorsement for a while. He recently won over a skeptical Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Just netting Georgia would put Republicans back in the majority.
But Walker’s ex-wife alleges that he threatened her life by pointing a gun at her temple. A former girlfriend also accuses him of threatening her life, an allegation Walker denies. The Associated Press has raised questions about his business practices, specifically whether he exaggerated his financial success.
The accusations are picking up steam as Walker’s primary opponents, including Georgia’s agricultural commissioner, use them as highly personal attacks.
Walker has been open about struggling with mental illness, saying altercations with his wife happened before he recognized he was struggling mentally. “He has an opportunity to tell what is truly a redemption story,” said a Senate Republican operative.
Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania: Before he dropped out of the race Monday, Parnell was in a tough primary battle for the nomination for an open seat in the U.S. Senate, a race crucial to Republicans’ hopes to take back the chamber.
He is in the process of a divorce as he runs for Senate, and his wife successfully got custody of their three children. In sworn, public testimony, she testified that he strangled her once so hard she had to bite his hand, and that he once hit one of their children so hard it left welts on the child’s body. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports she also testified he once forced her out of a vehicle and told her “to go get an abortion.”
Parnell said these were lies. But the judge disagreed, saying he found Parnell to be less credible than his wife in testimony.
The trouble in Parnell’s personal life blew into the open days after Trump endorsed him. Another top Republican candidate, Jeff Bartos, is running ads talking about all this.
Eric Greitens in Missouri: The former governor of Missouri stands out on this list for a few reasons: Trump hasn’t endorsed him (yet); he’s running for the U.S. Senate in a state that isn’t expected to be that competitive for Democrats; and the allegations against him already cost him the governorship.
Greitens was governor in 2018 when he had to acknowledge that he had an affair with a hairdresser. She alleged that he tied her up and blackmailed her with a nude photo to prevent her talking about it. (He denies the blackmail part.) This snowballed into two criminal charges and his resignation.
The Republican establishment doesn’t want Greitens to win the nomination, but he is the biggest name in the field and is courting Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary.
Josh Mandel in Ohio: Ohio is another state where Republicans really need to win. Like Pennsylvania, it has an open seat. And like Pennsylvania, the Republican primary campaign is already brutal, more than a year before the election.
Former state treasurer Josh Mandel is one of the top Republican candidates. He actually ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and was the leading candidate, but he abruptly dropped out, citing his wife’s undisclosed illness. In 2020, they divorced. (His ex-wife has issued a statement saying she supports Mandel’s candidacy.)
Now it’s the 2022 race, and Mandel’s campaign has confirmed that he is dating a subordinate on his campaign, its finance director. Relationships between subordinates and bosses have come under more scrutiny in the #MeToo era. Some of the campaign staffers quit this summer, citing a toxic work environment they attribute to Mandel’s girlfriend, reported the Columbus Dispatch.
Mandel is in a crowded primary, mainly duking it out with the author J.D. Vance over who is the most Trumpian candidate. Trump has not yet endorsed anyone in that race.
This has been updated with the latest news.