The Georgia Senate changed overnight.
One factor is that the Daily Beast reported that Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee, once paid a woman for an abortion, a claim Walker denies. But it was also, and perhaps more critically, the reaction of his son, a conservative social media influencer, who questioned his father’s refusal to admit guilt.
“I’m done – done – it was all a lie,” Christian Walker said in a now-viral report Videoin which he called his father’s behavior “atrocious” and accused him of abandoning the four mothers of his four children to pursue sexual relations and even accused him of domestic violence subsequent tweets.
The race is far from over but it’s hard not to see this as a defining moment in a very close race. With control of the Senate at stake, Walker’s fate is largely that of the Republican Party.
Those moments — when unexpected, sometimes contrived, news casts a new negative light on an embattled candidate — often crop up in October, in the final weeks of an election campaign.
“October surprises” don’t always change the outcome. Just look at Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape, a politically awkward moment that ultimately, as Steve Bannon put it in 2017, “didn’t have any lasting impact on the campaign.” This year, James Comey’s letter to Congress saying the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton a week before the election may have changed the outcome.
And sometimes a candidate is just unlucky: Trump spent much of October 2020 in quarantine with Covid-19 before losing to Joe Biden.
It’s not necessarily the facts of the case that make the candidate fail. It’s the context, ranging from the reaction of the supporters to the messages already in place in the campaign.
As we get further into October, more negative stories are being crushed by candidates as campaigns unleash political opposition research, nominees are vetted and re-vetted by national political bodies with more resources than the many local bodies, and some candidates simply collapse under pressure.
Here’s when these things really matter:
The party no longer wants to be associated with the candidate
It could always go down in campaign history for the late Todd Akin that he lost the Missouri Senate race in 2012 for his claim that in cases of “lawful rape” the female body has opportunities to end it all. It was only a few months before Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Republican nominee, faced a similar process when he said in a debate in October, “Even if life begins in this horrible situation of rape, this is something that God intended to happen.”
But that’s not the whole story. The Akin blip came months before the August general election, and it was the Republican withdrawal that ultimately cost him a chance of victory.
Meanwhile, Mourdock had just defeated the then Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary, who was supported by major Republican figures such as John McCain. Before the comments, it had been a drawn race and Mourdock was losing his momentum.
In 2017, when #MeToo was having a moment, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore lost key Republican allies — including Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — after multiple women came forward and accused him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Without that support and too late to have his name removed from the ballot, Moore lost the Senate race to Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator elected in Alabama in a quarter century.
In Georgia, early signs suggest Republicans plan to hold on to Walker, despite raising concerns before he entered the race that his past could cause problems down the road. Trump expressed his support for Walker in one expression issued Tuesday, noting that “It is very important to our country and the Great State of Georgia that Herschel Walker win this election.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-hosted super PAC charged with flipping the Senate, said it remains “full steam ahead” in Georgia Shane Goldmacher of The New York Times. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), released a statement maintenance his support for Walker and said he denied the allegations. And Politico’s Marianne LeVine reports that Senator John Cornyn of Texas is standing with Walker, lamenting that the story is a “distraction from threats to Georgia’s economic, personal and national security.”
Daniel Scarpinato, a Republican strategist who declined to speak specifically about Georgia, said when employees start leaving, people take endorsements or events are canceled, he calls it “the smell of death” for campaigns.
“These are things that I would put in the campaign breakdown category,” Scarpinato said.
The new allegations cement a familiar narrative
During the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, Rick Santorum resurfaced Mitt Romney’s infamous “dog on the car roof” story — that 30 years earlier, during an hour-long family drive, a 36-year-old Romney had strapped his family’s dog crate to the top of their stuffed station wagon. Seamus, the family Irish Setter, who was in the crate, became nauseous while driving.
Most of Romney’s supporters downplayed the story, while opponents — including Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama — took the opportunity to demean the senator’s character while bolstering their own by citing it in political ads and social media posts referenced the story.
“There are certain events that happen throughout someone’s life that feed into a larger story and feed into a cartoon,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane told The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker at the time. “The Seamus the dog story just plays into a negative story about a guy you might not fully trust.”
For Republicans clinging to Walker, the narrative hasn’t changed: Walker is a vehicle to oust Raphael Warnock and impede Biden’s agenda in a Republican-leaning state. But it fits with the message from Warnock’s supporters, who have already aired several ads about Walker’s alleged history of domestic violence.
But the events of the past 24 hours could cause voters to internalize some of the allegations they’ve been hearing about for months, Reed Galen, political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an organization founded by Republican critics, told Trump.
“We are in a post-disgrace world and post-consequence world for many candidates,” Galen said, adding, “I think it’s the pinnacle of a rogue candidate running a rogue campaign where political gravity finally caught up with him Has.”
The revelation completely changes the way the candidate is perceived
It was no secret that Trump had an unsavory history with women when the Access Hollywood tape came out. In fact, Trump’s bumbling character continues to act as a Teflon for him, allowing him to take even the most damaging stories about him and turn them into badges of honor.
But for candidates whose campaigns are based on a squeaky clean image, a nasty story can turn things upside down. Just look at Cal Cunningham, the 2020 North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee whom Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) has reportedly blamed for the Democratic Party’s failure to win the Senate on Election day 2020 completely conquering him after he admitted having an extramarital affair. But Republicans pounced, airing ads asking “what else” he was hiding and questioning his general character.
There was a slow trickle of stories about Walker’s personal history that don’t make this turn of events an entirely new narrative — rather, it expresses the intensity of a line of attack that has been in place for months. While Walker has denied ever breaking the law and has denied previous allegations of threatening behavior, he also said he wants to be “accountable” for his past.
It’s a race you absolutely have to win
Both parties have set a precedent for withdrawing support from candidates – albeit usually at lower stakes.
When Jeff van Drew, then a valued Democratic recruit in an embattled South Jersey district, ran in 2018, Republicans rebuffed his opponent Seth Grossman, citing years of racist and sexist language. “Bigotry has no place in society — let alone in the U.S. House of Representatives,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement after the GOP withdrew its consent. (Van Drew switched to the Republican Party after winning the general election.) And in 2012, Tennessee’s Democratic Party revoked Senate nominee Mark Clayton for his ties to the Public Advocate of the United States, a conservative hate group, though the Democrats didn’t seriously compete there anyway — Republican incumbent Bob Corker won with 65 percent of the vote.
But with a 50-50 Senate, Georgia is a race both parties must win. Without Georgia, the road to a Senate majority is “narrow and treacherous,” said Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst at Inside Elections. Republicans must hold every red state, including Pennsylvania, and flip Nevada or Arizona to achieve a majority that once looked inevitable.
“For a [Republican] Party that six months ago thought they were heading for a red wave, that’s a narrow gap to shoot at,” Rubashkin said. “The path still exists, but without Georgia it is much more difficult.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for editing this article.