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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Republicans cling to Walker's denials

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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In today's edition …  Prison labor and slavery are on the ballot in five states next month … What we're watching: Biden heads to Florida … but first …

The campaign

Republicans cling to Walker's denials

As long as Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker continues to vehemently deny a Daily Beast report that he paid for a girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009, the Republican Party and its allies will rally behind him.

Even if he doesn't, or more details emerge — they're still likely to defend the former football star.

Republicans think Walker is one of their best shots at giving Republicans a Senate majority in a nail-bitter of a year for both parties by defeating Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). And at this point — they're stuck with him.

This stand-by-their-man approach was on full display Tuesday as Republican leaders and antiabortion groups rallied to Walker's defense. They pointed to his denial and called the report, which has not been independently confirmed by The Washington Post, innuendo, lies and character assassination.

  • “Herschel Walker has denied these allegations in the strongest possible terms and we stand firmly alongside him,” said Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Women Speak Out PAC, a super PAC partner of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

"When the Democrats are losing, as they are right now, they lie and cheat and smear their opponents,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, said in a statement. He compared Walker's situation to allegations made against Supreme Court justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, and Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment, during their confirmation processes.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership, ignored the abortion controversy when he tweeted his support, saying that the country “can't take Joe Biden and unchecked Democrat policies for two more years.”

Noticeably silent was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but the leader of a super PAC aligned with him, the Senate Leadership Fund, voiced support for Walker. The super PAC's president, Steven Law, said the allegation and other Walker controversies are “a distraction.”

The denial pits Walker against the media, and he and his team are trying to create a narrative in which Walker is the victim of an unforgiving and biased media, which is a comfortable place for Republicans who understand that the tactic unites the conservative base.  (The Daily Beast spoke with the woman, her friend and also reviewed a bank statement, a receipt for the abortion and a get-well card from Walker.)

How you vote, not how you act

Antiabortion and evangelical groups made clear during former president Donald Trump's campaign and presidency that they overlook personal behavior for the broader goal of public policy.

The National Right to Life Committee said in a statement the most important thing is Walker's no-abortion, no-exceptions position. "Herschel Walker wants to protect unborn children while Warnock wants to see them die through unlimited abortion,” the group said.

  • And evangelical leader Ralph Reed said that what matters “more than the personal politics of destruction” is that Warnock voted with President Biden 96 percent of the time.

Walker posted pictures Tuesday morning at an event full of supporters, including Reed, where the participants appeared to be praying with him. 

The position of the antiabortion movement is not unexpected.  It's similar to the position some antiabortion advocates took in 2016.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told The New Yorker last year that “complete understanding about the heart, soul, essence" of how Trump felt about abortion was “not nearly as important as the solid commitment” to restricting abortion access.

Walker's woes

Senate Republican leaders know Walker is a flawed candidate, and he wasn't their top choice to be the GOP's Senate nominee. But Trump wanted him to run and they went along with the plan rather than risk angering the former president. 

By the time Walker jumped into the race in August of last year, the football legend had the support of a large majority of Republicans and independent primary voters, so running a resource-intensive primary campaign against him would likely have failed, said one Republican political strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe party members' thinking.

Will this latest bombshell have a big impact on the race? 

In this post-Trump world, there appears little conservative politicians with star power can do to repel their base voters.

But in a post-Roe world, abortion has become a major issue in races across the country. Georgia is a relatively conservative state, but it now has a six-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape or incest if a police report was filed and Walker's alleged hypocrisy could motivate voters concerned about abortion restrictions.

And while national Republicans took a what-me-worry stance, our colleagues Annie Linskey and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. report that Georgia Republicans were not quite as sanguine about the latest Walker controversy:

Republicans privately acknowledge the story isn't helpful and the videos by his son, Christian Walker, on social media calling his father a liar and not a family man could have an impact on voters. But some also note Walker has already managed to close the polling gap against his Warnock despite an ad blanketing the airwaves of Walker's ex-wife saying Walker tried to kill her,  revelations of undisclosed children and numerous verbal flubs.

“There's a lot of time between now and Election Day. It's important to take a step back,” Republican strategist Matt Gorman said, adding that Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who is also on the ballot, will likely lift Walker among Republican voters.

In the states

Prison labor and slavery are on the ballot in five states next month

The criminal justice reform movement is trying to reshape prison labor and force voters come to terms with the legacy of chattel slavery on Election Day through ballot initiatives in five states.

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide whether to end the criminal punishment exception created by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude, when they head to the polls on Nov. 8.

“These ballot measures are critical,” Jennifer Turner, a researcher in the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, told Tobi. Although they wouldn’t immediately confer employment rights and changes in working conditions to incarcerated workers, “it’s an essential and necessary prerequisite to addressing the forced labor that persists in our prisons,” she said.

When the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 an exception was carved out for criminal punishment. 

The roots of contemporary prison labor can be found in this exception, which “disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective re-enslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era,” Turner wrote in a 2022 report examining prison labor nationwide.

  • “More than 76 percent of incarcerated workers report that they are required to work or face additional punishment such as solitary confinement, denial of opportunities to reduce their sentence, and loss of family visitation, or the inability to pay for basic life necessities like bath soap,” per the report.
  • Over 1 million Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. Of that, two out of three are also workers, per the report. Incarcerated workers — including those fighting wildfires in California — typically earn little to no pay.

Voters in three states – Colorado, Nevada and Utah – have approved similar measures since 2018. But the current group of states is especially significant because of Alabama and Louisiana’s legacy as slave states in the Deep South, Turner said. Here are the states we're watching:

  • Alabama: Alabama’s ballot will also ask voters to decide whether to strip “all racist language” from the state constitution. The vote coincides with a statewide prison strike over unpaid labor.
  • Louisiana: The Louisiana State Penitentiary — also known as Angola — is the country’s largest maximum-security prison and the site of several former slave plantations. There are “tremendous problems with the exploitation of incarcerated workers in Louisiana,” Turner said. “We found this across the country, but Louisiana specifically has incredibly low wages, and workers sometimes will have to work for years before they’re even eligible to draw a wage.”
  • Oregon: Along with addressing prison work, Oregonians will decide whether to require courts, probation agencies or parole agencies to offer alternatives to incarceration.

Next steps: If the ballot measures are adopted and state constitutions are amended, it will be up to the courts to interpret these constitutional rights. This is currently happening in Colorado, where two inmates filed a class-action lawsuit over forced labor.

What we're watching

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden  are traveling to Fort Meyers, Fla., today to witness the damage from Hurricane Ian. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will join and they'll be met by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). 

Biden will tour the devastation via helicopter, receive an operational briefing with state and local officials and meet with small business owners and residents who have been impacted by the storm. He will deliver remarks at the end of the day. 

Biden's trip comes as the enormous scope of the clean up is coming into view and the state and federal response enters a very difficult phase. 

The political implications are big too, especially for DeSantis who is up for reelection next month, and who has bigger aspirations, against current House member and former governor Charlie Crist.

DeSantis and Biden have sparred over a multitude of issues, including immigration, but both have put politics aside since Ian. We'll be watching to see how much they publicly praise each other. 

The Media

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