The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP leaders rally behind Walker. But in Georgia, Republicans fret.

The emerging dynamic five weeks before the election underlines a predicament Republicans are confronting in the midterms

Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, participates in his Unite Georgia bus tour in Forsyth on Wednesday. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

DUNWOODY, Ga. — National Republican leaders such as former president Donald Trump and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) on Tuesday rallied behind Herschel Walker, defending the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in Georgia after he denied a report that he paid for a girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009.

But Republican leaders and activists in Georgia expressed unease with Walker’s candidacy after his personal life was yet again under the spotlight in a crucial midterm battleground, voicing worries that they elevated a flawed candidate who could complicate efforts to win back the Senate.

The emerging dynamic five weeks before Walker faces Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) underlines a predicament Republicans are confronting. Many see Georgia as one of the best opportunities to flip a Senate seat, and they feel compelled to continue boosting their candidate, who polls show is competitive. Yet in elevating an untested political newcomer who has faced allegations of stalking, violent threats and hypocrisy in his personal life as well as criticism over false claims, they are bracing for a potentially difficult final stretch.

“I don’t think anybody got on the internet last night or got on Twitter last night and said this is going to be good for Herschel Walker,” said Lane Flynn, a former chairman of the DeKalb County Republican Party. “The question going forward is how transactional is the average voter going to be — not necessarily the hardcore super GOP person. But the suburban mom or … people who skipped the last election, maybe voted blue. Can they be brought back?”

Republicans cannot replace Walker on the ballot this late into the campaign, and several suggested doing so would not be the right move even if they could. Instead, many said they hoped Walker could weather this storm, as Trump was able to win over voters by striking a defiant posture amid revelations about his past seen by many as disqualifying for a candidate for public office.

On Monday, the Daily Beast published a detailed description from an unnamed girlfriend who said that the former football star encouraged her to have an abortion after she became pregnant while they were dating, wrote her a $700 check to pay for the procedure and then sent her a “get well” card.

Walker, who is campaigning as an opponent of abortion rights with no exceptions for rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother, and has voiced support for a national ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy, immediately denied the report, saying in a televised interview on Fox News Channel that the account published in the Daily Beast is a “flat-out lie.” The Washington Post has not independently verified the reporting from the Daily Beast.

Walker’s campaign has not clarified whether he knew the woman referenced in the story. He said on Fox News that he frequently writes large checks to people he knows, but the Walker campaign did not respond to a request for a list of other examples.

Trump on Tuesday defended Walker in a statement that he posted to Truth Social, his social media network. “They are trying to destroy a man who has true greatness in his future, just as he had athletic greatness in his past,” Trump wrote.

Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a statement about Walker on Tuesday, saying, “The NRSC and Republicans stand with him.” Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, sounded a similar note: “Herschel Walker has denied these allegations in the strongest possible terms, and we stand firmly alongside him.”

On Tuesday morning, Walker arrived in a black SUV at a pre-scheduled private event at First Baptist Church Atlanta, a sprawling complex in a suburb north of the city. The event was advertised on Facebook as an opportunity to “Worship and Luncheon with Herschel Walker.”

Church officials barred reporters from the property during the event. Afterward, several attendees said the format was a conversation between Walker and Anthony George, the church’s pastor. Walker detailed his life and his reasons for running for Senate, according to several who attended.

Walker’s reported conduct in the Daily Beast story did not come up, one man said as he was climbing into his SUV in the parking lot.

Shortly before the event, Ralph Reed, a Walker backer and the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, walked to a curbside wooded area just off the church property to give a brief statement to reporters.

“This latest personal attack against Herschel Walker is unlikely to resonate with voters in Georgia,” he said. Reed then sought to frame the choice as between Walker, a politician who would vote to curb abortion rights, vs. Warnock, an advocate of abortion rights.

Walker’s campaign raised more than $180,000 in less than 24 hours after the report about his past, a major funding boost, Walker spokesman Will Kiley said.

But elsewhere in Georgia, Republicans expressed despair about the latest round of stories — or kept their distance from Walker.

The campaign of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection in November, treaded carefully around the developments surrounding Walker, with a representative not mentioning the Senate candidate by name.

“As he has said repeatedly throughout this campaign,” Kemp campaign spokesman Cody Hall said in a statement, “the governor is laser focused on sharing his record of results and vision for his second term with hardworking Georgians, and raising the resources necessary to fund the advertising, ground game, and voter turnout operation needed to ensure Republican victories up and down the ballot on November 8th.”

Seth Weathers, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist and state director for Trump’s campaign in 2016, lamented the situation. “We could have had Gary Black,” he said, referring to one of Walker’s opponents during the GOP primary.

“I warned everyone I knew that this was a dumb idea,” Weathers added, though he said he planned to vote for Walker in November.

A Georgia Republican official from suburban Atlanta who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid said Monday’s revelations amplified concerns among her friends that Walker’s ascent to the Senate would mean a half-dozen years of drama that would reflect badly on and even embarrass the state.

“For a lot of my friends, it’s, ‘I don’t want to be embarrassed. I want good temperament. Is this someone I want to go to the game with? Someone I want to be around my child?’ ” the official said.

“I think they’re like: ‘I’m not happy with the Biden administration. I don’t like the way things are going. But you know, Warnock, he doesn’t embarrass me. He seems relatable to me.”

Some Republicans pointed to Walker’s adult son, a young conservative who has become an outspoken critic of his father amid the allegations, as a deepening problem.

Warnock’s campaign said little on Tuesday, and it did not respond to an emailed inquiry about the abortion claim involving Walker. Privately, Democrats noted that the claim, and his son’s response, fits into an argument Democrats are advancing: Once voters know the real Walker, they will not like him.

Warnock and groups boosting his campaign have been running ads about allegations that Walker physically threatened women with whom he was romantically involved.

They include one from Walker’s former wife Cindy Grossman, who has detailed threats of abuse she said she has faced from Walker. Speaking to ABC News in 2008, Grossman said Walker “got a gun and put it to my temple.” In an interview with CNN the same year, she said: “He held the gun to my temple and said he was going to blow my brains out.”

The interviews were part of a media tour done ahead of the January 2009 release of Walker’s book about his struggles with mental illness, titled “Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder.”

The Warnock campaign and two different outside groups backing his candidacy have used some of these clips in attack ads. The organizations are “Georgia Honor,” a Democratic-backed organization and the Republican Accountability Group, an organization with GOP support.

Walker wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in August decrying the GOP-backed ad, saying that it unfairly used his efforts to destigmatize mental health as an attack against his candidacy.

“My former wife, Cindy, and I gave a TV interview in 2008 to share our story — not about the glory days of football but about the pain of my mental-health struggles and their effect on our marriage,” Walker wrote in the Journal. “Now I’m running for office, and my struggle has become the subject of a dishonest attack ad.”

Two other women have reported Walker’s behavior to police, according to media accounts that The Washington Post has not independently verified. In 2012, Myka Dean requested the police and told them that Walker threatened violence, according to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She said the two had an on-again, off-again relationship for 20 years. She died in 2019. Walker has denied the account, and he was not charged with a crime.

Also, police were called in 2002 when a different woman said he was “lurking” outside her home, according to an account by the Associated Press. Charges were not brought against Walker.

In large part, Walker and his defenders have offered his 2008 book about his struggles with dissociative identity disorder up as a counterpoint and redemption story to these claims.

Grossman’s son with Walker, Christian Walker, alleged on Twitter on Monday night that his father “threatened to kill us” and caused him and his mother to move six times in six months “running from your violence.”

On Tuesday, Christian Walker posted two short videos online: “We were told at the beginning of this he was going to get ahead of his past, hold himself accountable and all of these different things. And that would have been fine. He didn’t do any of that.”

Christian Walker also addressed his three half-siblings, who his father had not publicly discussed before the campaign. Walker’s campaign initially acknowledged that the football star had one child out of wedlock and subsequently acknowledged two others.

“He has four kids, four different women, wasn’t in the house raising any of them,” Christian Walker said in a video, accusing his father of hypocrisy for presenting himself as pro-family when he abandoned his own. Christian Walker has not responded to multiple attempts to contact him.

Asked for comment Monday on Christian Walker’s postings, the Herschel Walker campaign pointed to a tweet from the candidate. “I LOVE my son no matter what,” Herschel Walker wrote on Twitter shortly after his son’s messages posted.

Many in Georgia’s political class followed Twitter in real time Monday night, texting each other back and forth about the Daily Beast story, Christian Walker’s tweetstorm, and the implications of both on Walker’s chances of becoming senator, said one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely about the situation.

Some openly wondered whether this would be a decisive blow to the campaign, while others questioned the legal process and electoral implications of trying to replace Walker on the ballot, according to the strategist. Some worried that Monday’s report would not be the last about Walker before the election.

Other Republicans said they believe concerns about inflation and other matters will spur voters to pick GOP candidates such as Walker over Democrats, the party in power at the federal level.

No matter how they felt about him, Republicans agreed that Walker would be the GOP representative on the ballot and nothing would change that.

“We’re kind of stuck,” Flynn said.

Wootson reported from Washington. Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

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What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.