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The Base Stands by Herschel Walker
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The Base Stands by Herschel Walker

Going into tonight’s debate against Sen. Raphael Warnock, his problem is reaching voters in the middle.

Herschel Walker poses for a photo with supporters Tuesday in Carrollton, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

CARROLLTON, Ga.—If you’re wondering how Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign is doing ahead of tonight’s debate with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, consider the scene at the parking lot of the South Park Health and Wellness Center in this town just west of Atlanta.

As is typical for Walker events, Tuesday’s began with a prayer. Donnie Jones, who manages the South Park property, took the stage to offer a fervent plea for divine support for the Republican Senate candidate.

“May he be a man who fears God and rules in righteousness,” Jones prayed. “May he be like the morning light in the dark world of politics. May he be a man who seeks first the kingdom of God and then the kingdom of man. May Herschel be a man raised up in Georgia for such a time as this, a time when babies are allowed to be slaughtered in the womb for reasons of convenience.”

It was a striking remark, given recent events. Two weeks ago, the mother of one of Walker’s children accused him of encouraging her to get an abortion, then paying for the procedure in 2009. She claims he told her it “wasn’t a good time” for him to have another child—and said the same thing again several years later, when she decided this time to have his child against his wishes. Stacked against Walker’s feeble denials was a heap of pretty convincing physical evidence, including a get-well card signed by Walker and a check bearing his signature from the week of the abortion. The whole saga had caused Walker’s own son Christian to denounce his father’s religion-forward public image, saying he had “left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence.” 

Surely Jones had heard? After his prayer, I caught up to ask. He said he didn’t know whether to believe the abortion allegation but admitted he found it troubling. “If that’s true, he’ll stand before God and answer. And God help him if that is.”

But Jones wasn’t going to let that concern change his political calculation. He couldn’t. “In this realm, if someone’s gonna stand up for the sanctity of human life, I’m gonna vote for them,” he said. “I couldn’t do otherwise, conscience-wise.”

When Walker’s October surprise dropped, many Republican strategists in the state feared total collapse. “Game over,” one prominent conservative activist texted me at the time. Now, he’s not so sure: “I really thought the Christian Walker videos and comments would be a knockout blow. The focus on the abortion story drowned that out.”

The abortion story was shocking, but you can see why it hasn’t led to Roy Moore-esque collapse for Walker: Voters who find abortion tantamount to murder are likely to feel duty-bound to support pro-life candidates, come what may. Republican voters more focused on other issues—the economy, crime, the border—are less inclined to see what all the fuss is about.

“That doesn’t matter to me whatsoever,” said Sandy Wardlaw, who attended the Carrollton event. “First of all, if—and I’m not saying he did, cause he said he didn’t—he helped pay for an abortion, it was legal. So what difference does it make? The Democrats are all for it. So why are they making such a big stink about it?”

That doesn’t mean the story (and the accumulated weight of other scandals) hasn’t hurt Walker. Georgia’s no longer a state where keeping things square with the Republican base guarantees a win: You’ve got to play in the middle, too. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Collaborative poll released Wednesday found Walker trailing Warnock 46 percent to 43 percent. And Walker was 8 points down from the other big-name Republican on the ballot: Gov. Brian Kemp led Democrat Stacey Abrams 51-41.

In a Wednesday interview, Kemp declined to say whether he’d be campaigning with Walker down the stretch. “There’s no telling who you might see me campaigning with, but look: I’m leading the ticket,” he told The Dispatch at a campaign stop in south Georgia. “I’ve been at events with Herschel. What we’re doing in our ground game—that hasn’t been done in this state from a Republican in 10 years—is gonna support the whole ticket. But I got to win my race too. And I know if I do a good job and win my race, and we turn our people out, it’s gonna be good for everybody on the ticket.”

For Walker, then, the name of the game at today’s debate isn’t trying to reassure his own base. It’s to convince skittish Kemp supporters not to split the ticket. And this in turn helps explain why Walker—whose short-but-meandering stump speech tends to focus on issues like wokeness in schools and the military—intends to hit Warnock mostly on the broad-appeal boilerplate themes we’ve seen other Republicans focus on: “Economy, crime, Warnock voting 96 percent of the time with Biden,” a spokesman for his campaign told The Dispatch.

Whether Warnock will try to clobber Walker on his scandals tonight remains to be seen. On the trail this month, he’s steered clear of the media feeding frenzy, focusing instead on highlighting his own voting record in the Senate and support for policies like comprehensive immigration reform. (It helps that outside Democrats are spending tens of millions of dollars to make the attack-ad case against Walker for him.)

“The debate matters very little in terms of who wins,” the conservative activist said. “Warnock will win the debate. If Herschel appears competent, it might mean something. Biggest thing is he can’t say something really stupid.”

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.