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What happens next with Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia, denied a report that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009 on Fox News on Oct. 3. (Video: Fox News)

The first October surprise of the 2022 election landed late Monday, and it’s one that could have major implications for control of the Senate.

The Daily Beast reported that Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009. Walker has campaigned on an antiabortion platform — with no exceptions — and has said that he always opposed abortion rights. The Washington Post has not independently confirmed the Daily Beast report, and Walker is denying it.

His son Christian, a conservative who had previously indicated that he supported Walker’s campaign, is now speaking out against him, saying that his dad “threatened to kill us” — apparently referring to him and his mother — and that the family had to move repeatedly to flee “your violence.” National Republicans have indicated they will back their candidate.

So where do things go from here?

What’s clear right now is there is a reason Republicans are standing by Walker: They have little other choice. Georgia law doesn’t allow a party to replace a candidate this late in the process.

“Any vacancy which occurs in any party nomination filled by a primary and which is created by reason of the withdrawal of a candidate less than 60 days prior to the date of the election shall not be filled,” the law says.

Also factoring into the GOP’s continued support: The party was increasingly counting on Georgia to win the Senate.

With polls showing Republican candidates underperforming the fundamentals in several key Senate races, Walker — for all his previous problems, which were many — hasn’t lagged as badly as some. And just two weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) named Georgia and Nevada as the GOP’s best pickup opportunities, apparently over others in Arizona, Colorado and New Hampshire.

McConnell wagered that Republicans would hold GOP seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, at which point they would need either Georgia or Nevada to take the Senate majority. But GOP nominee Mehmet Oz still trails in Pennsylvania — and if he lost, Georgia might be necessary (though much remains in flux).

We’ll have to wait to see exactly how winnable the race remains; frequent polling should give us some clues in the days to come.

It’s worth emphasizing that such reports haven’t always torpedoed the careers of antiabortion Republicans. In 2012, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) was reported to have tried persuading a woman with whom he had a relationship to get an abortion despite campaigning hard against abortion rights; he won his next GOP primary by 38 votes and remains in Congress to this day.

But DesJarlais’s situation isn’t totally analogous to Walker’s. In a safe GOP seat, all DesJarlais had to do was survive a primary; Walker will have to win in one of the country’s preeminent swing states, where moderate voters will matter. And most polls have shown Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) leading, although the race is tight.

Those close margins mean even a little bit of slippage in Walker’s support could take this race off the table for the GOP. Walker has remained competitive despite several ugly personal revelations. Those include his ex-wife saying that he repeatedly held a gun to her head (which he has not denied) and threatened to cut her with a razor, as well as more recent reports, again broken by the Daily Beast, that Walker fathered three children with different women whom he hadn’t disclosed. Walker, who has campaigned against absentee Black fathers, denied hiding the children.

If the Daily Beast’s report is accurate, it would further substantiate claims of hypocrisy on the part of the former University of Georgia and NFL star. And it could alienate socially conservative Republicans.

And that could be troublesome in Georgia not just because of how tight the race is but what the ballot will look like.

Unlike many other states, Georgia has a demonstrated history of Libertarian Party candidates performing reasonably well — often winning a few percentage points worth of votes, but sometimes more.

A Libertarian nominee for statewide office in 2008 made history by winning more than 1 million votes. The same year, a Libertarian nominee took enough of the vote (3.4 percent) to force a runoff in a Senate race. Then it happened again in 2020, when the Libertarian nominee’s 2.3 percent helped push Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) into a runoff; Perdue had been just 0.27 percent away from winning a majority of votes, which would have ended the race.

That runoff, of course, ultimately proved decisive in delivering the Democrats the 50 votes they needed to control the Senate.

In this race, it’s not clear that the Libertarian candidate will necessarily hurt Walker. Walker actually seems to have performed marginally better in polls that include that candidate, Chase Oliver, who usually polls at 3 or 4 percent. But Republicans generally fear that Libertarian candidates siphon more votes from them than from Democrats, as evidenced by them trying to remove such candidates from the ballot.

Ultimately, as in 2020, it’s more likely that the Libertarian nominee’s impact will be to push the race to a runoff, rather than boost Warnock’s share of the vote; after all, Oliver could serve as an outlet for voters to repudiate Walker but not help Warnock get to a majority. Then the race would ultimately boil down to a one-on-one between Walker and Warnock.

And if the 2020 runoff and Walker’s campaign have shown us anything, it’s that extending the contest into December — with the whole nation watching and scrutinizing the candidates — might not be a great thing for the GOP’s hopes of a Senate majority.