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What Todd Akin and Roy Moore can tell us about Herschel Walker

Lawmakers and pundits on Oct. 9 reacted to allegations that anti-abortion Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker paid for a girlfriend's procedure. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s a situation Republicans have confronted way too many times for Mitch McConnell’s liking over the past decade or so: A candidate running in a closely watched, competitive race is suddenly enmeshed in a personal scandal late in the campaign. This time, it’s Herschel Walker. And as always the question is: Will it matter?

A more apt question is will it matter enough.

It’s tempting to say these things no longer matter at all, especially after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite the “Access Hollywood” tape. Trump initially was left for dead by many in his party, but then he pulled a massive political shocker.

Trump recently contended that the electorate’s view of personal moral failings has shifted so substantially that Walker’s problems aren’t the dealbreaker they once were — at least before Walker was accused of paying for an abortion.

That might still be true. But a look at recent history suggests that these things have almost always mattered at least somewhat. Just how much depends on many variables, including:

  • what the alleged offense is
  • how vital the election is/whether it’s federal
  • when the alleged offense occurred/was revealed
  • how people felt about the politician before that

Perhaps the most clear-cut and fairly recent example of a scandal instantly and unambiguously sinking a politician was Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.). Before his comments about “legitimate rape” in August 2012, he had led Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in the seven most recent polls of their race. But within days of the remark, the same pollsters showed McCaskill overtaking him. And her ultimate 16-point margin of victory was bigger than in any of the polls.

Late that same election cycle, Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock decided to offer his own thoughts on pregnancy resulting from rape. He said that when it happens, it’s “something that God intended.” The race had been polling tight before those Oct. 23 comments, but Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) quickly overtook Mourdock and won by six points.

Given that the GOP won Missouri and Indiana by nine and 10 points, respectively, in the presidential race that year, there’s little doubt that these comments inflicted substantial damage.

The other key example of a controversy apparently costing the GOP a Senate seat is the 2017 race in Alabama. This time, though, the scandal concerned the candidate’s personal conduct: The Washington Post reported that GOP candidate Roy Moore had pursued teenage girls decades earlier while he was in his 30s — including two who alleged sexual abuse. Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, hadn’t led in any polls of the race to that point, but suddenly a Fox News poll showed him up eight points, and a Washington Post-Schar School poll showed him up three. Jones won by 1.5 points — in deep-red Alabama.

Other examples are a little more difficult to parse but carry some lessons.

In 2007, Sen. David Vitter’s prostitution scandal didn’t appear to have much political impact; a poll conducted the next month showed two-thirds of Louisianans still approved of him. And Vitter (R-La.) was reelected three years later by a whopping 19 points. But he did ultimately lose a 2015 governor’s race in which the prostitution issue was raised extensively — again, in a red state.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) was revealed to have had an extramarital affair in 2009, and there were some signs of voters souring on him a bit (one poll showed 50 percent wanted him to resign). But he opted to stay in office and maintained a strong approval rating. He was also elected to Congress just four years after the scandal broke — albeit by only nine points in a district Mitt Romney had carried by 18 points the year before.

Perhaps the most analogous situation to Walker’s is the one Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) found himself in, at the tail end of the 2012 campaign. DesJarlais was revealed to have urged a mistress to have an abortion — among other messy problems. As you might have heard, DesJarlais is still in Congress a decade later. But there are real signs that it hurt; his margin of victory that year was just 12 points, despite Romney carrying the heavily conservative district by 32 points the same day. And DesJarlais won his primary two years later by just 38 votes.

Indeed, if DesJarlais had been dealing with an electorate like the others on this list, it’s quite possible he would’ve lost.

The final key example we’ll cite is one my colleague Paul Kane broached this weekend. Democrat Cal Cunningham, like Walker, was someone his party was counting on to help it retake the Senate in 2020. Then he was revealed to have engaged in an extramarital affair. The impact here is less obvious — Kane notes that Cunningham led both before and after the disclosure in nearly every poll — but his lead narrowed to the point where it was anyone’s ballgame on Election Day. And Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was reelected by two points.

Why did that apparently have less impact? As the Sanford and Vitter examples suggest, it’s probably in part because of the perceived severity of the offense — an affair versus advocating an abortion or expressing extreme views on rape and pregnancy. (Sanford and Vitter also likely benefited from not having to face voters until years later.) It was also a federal race in which voters might be more concerned about losing 1 of 100 votes for their preferred side.

Both of these factors also probably accrued to Trump’s benefit — the importance of the presidency and Trump’s conduct being about what he argued was mere “locker room talk.”

Walker’s situation presents a whole host of variables that make it difficult to directly compare.

The details are similar to what happened with DesJarlais: Both men espoused strongly antiabortion views; this time, too, the alleged abortion is also merely the latest in a series of ugly personal revelations about the candidate’s personal life. (For Walker, this includes reports about his having multiple children with different women he had not previously spoken about publicly.) Walker is also an obviously bad candidate, even aside from his personal issues — giving incoherent answers in interviews, and previewing his performance at an upcoming debate by saying, “I’m not that smart” and predicting that his opponent would “embarrass” him. It’s possible that the fallout from this latest scandal could be a death-by-a-thousand-cuts-type situation.

But the evidence of the alleged abortion is less cut-and-dried — in DeJarlais’s case, there was a transcript of the congressman talking about the abortion — and Walker had already managed to remain competitive despite the previous revelations. (Walker denies paying for the abortion.) His race is also arguably more pivotal to control of the Senate than Akin’s and Mourdock’s races were in 2012, when Democrats went into Election Day with a six-seat majority. And Walker surely benefits from goodwill left over from his time as a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia.

The question seems to be less about Walker suffering the same kind of collapse as Akin and Mourdock and more about whether it costs him enough to lose an already tight race, ala Cunningham.

Of course, unlike in the pre-Trump era, Republicans now appear more willing to tolerate candidates behaving immorally than Democrats — if they even believe the incidents happened in the first place.