The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Herschel Walker poses an unusual test of the strength of partisanship

A supporter listens as Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat representing Georgia, participates in his Unite Georgia Bus Tour in Forsyth, Ga., on Sept. 28. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Right-wing radio host Dana Loesch was blunt in her assessment of the report this week that Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker had paid for a girlfriend’s abortion, a report the candidate denies.

“I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles,” Loesch said. “I want control of the Senate.”

There probably are Walker supporters in Georgia for whom this isn’t the case, people who believe that he’s a better candidate than incumbent Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) or who appreciate Walker’s more conservative positions on issues. But given the barrage of stories about Walker and the myriad questions about his honesty, it seems clear that Loesch’s approach — hold your nose and win the Senate — will be a central part of Walker’s support.

But will it be enough? Can unvarnished partisan desire for control of the Senate actually win Walker the seat?

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We went through a relatively similar test of this five years ago. In 2017, Alabama held a special election to fill a Senate seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general. As the final vote approached, pitting Republican Roy Moore against Democrat Doug Jones, The Washington Post reported that Moore was accused of groping a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s. Moore rejected the report and President Donald Trump, who’d endorsed him, stood by his candidate.

But on Election Day, Jones scraped out a narrow victory, carving out a bit of blue in the dark-red Deep South.

How did it happen? Exit polling showed that Moore suffered significant defections from members of his own party. Republicans made up more of the electorate than Democrats (43 percent to 37 percent), but Democrats were much more likely to vote for Jones, the Democrat, than Republicans were to support Moore. Ninety-eight percent of Democrats backed Jones, and 91 percent of Republicans voted for Moore. Add in Jones’s advantage with independents, and that was that.

Compare that with the results in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the presidential contest by a wider margin. That year, according to Pew Research Center validated polling, Clinton and Trump both had about the same level of support from their parties, and about the same level of support from independents. That Democrats made up more of the electorate — and that Republicans were more likely to vote third-party — helped Clinton earn more votes (although not the presidency).

This seems natural. Republicans mostly vote for the Republican and Democrats for the Democrat. That’s the point of parties, right? But it hasn’t always been the case. The Roper Center’s archive of exit polling shows how party loyalty in presidential races has increased over the past 50 years, particularly among Democrats.

The big dip is 1992, when the third-party candidate Ross Perot jumbled party loyalty.

The 2020 presidential contest ended up being a robust demonstration of the effects of party loyalty. Democrats overwhelmingly backed Biden and Republicans Trump, with each party making up a similar portion of the electorate. The difference was independents, who preferred Biden by a significant margin.

Presidential races are not Senate races, certainly, but there has been an increasing correlation between how voters vote in Senate races and how they vote for president.

You can see that below. Over time, the dots (representing the margin in the presidential vote from top to bottom and in a state’s Senate race from left to right) begin to align with the diagonal. Votes for president increasingly look like votes for Senate. The calculated correlation is shown in the gray bar; by 2020, the correlation between the two votes was very strong.

But there are other important ways in which the Walker race is not analogous to either presidential contests or the Alabama special election. For one, control of the Senate was not immediately at stake in Alabama, while a Walker victory would make a flip to the GOP in 2023 much more likely.

For another, the Moore-Jones race was the only contest on the ballot. If you were a Republican who found Moore distasteful, there was no reason to vote at all. In November, that’s not the case. Republican voters will want to vote in House races and in state-level contests, including for governor.

That incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has a healthy lead in the polls might reduce that pull to some extent, certainly. It is worth noting, though, that a Kemp-Warnock crossover vote is hardly inconceivable. As I wrote in July, there is much more willingness from voters to back a governor of one party and a Senate candidate from the other.

This happened in Georgia in the 2020 cycle, of course: with a Republican governor, the state nonetheless elected two Democrats to the Senate.

In Fox News polling released late last month, Kemp had the support of 94 percent of Republicans while his opponent, Stacey Abrams, had the support of 91 percent of Democrats. By contrast, Walker was supported by only 82 percent of Republicans, while Warnock was backed by 95 percent of his own party. Less than half of Republicans said they were enthusiastic about voting for Walker — and that was before the latest round of stories about the Republican candidate.

Walker has another important advantage, of course: an insular conservative media ecosystem willing to help keep Republican voters engaged. Walker had a softball interview on the heavily watched Fox News show “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday (also before the latest stories to emerge), conducted by the same guy who in August joined Walker for what served as an extended infomercial about the candidate’s campaign.

Will it be enough? Will Republican desire for control of the Senate be enough to look past Walker’s personal history and his pattern of dishonesty and exaggeration? Or will his name become a shorthand for the importance of candidate quality, like Roy Moore’s or Christine O’Donnell’s?

Georgia voters will answer that question.