On Monday night, The Daily Beast reported that Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia who has said he wants to ban abortion in all circumstances, had paid for his pregnant then-girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009.
Walker is currently locked in a toss-up race with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock for a seat that could decide control of the Senate. According to FiveThirtyEight’s midterm forecast, Georgia is the most likely “tipping-point” state in the chamber — i.e., the state most likely to give Republicans or Democrats their majority. To give you a sense of how crucial it is: If Republicans win Georgia, we estimate they would have a 60-in-100 chance of winning the Senate. But if Democrats win the state, we estimate they’d have an 89-in-100 chance of winning the chamber.
The question is, how much will this controversy hurt Walker? Given the salaciousness of the story and the turmoil it has reportedly plunged his campaign into, it’s tempting to think it might torpedo his chances. But that’s hardly a guarantee.
It is true that scandals tangibly affect candidates’ chances of winning elections. I keep a database of scandals, and based on an analysis we did in 2018, we found that scandal-plagued incumbents did 9 percentage points worse in their next general election than they would otherwise be projected to do. That analysis included a variety of factors such as the candidate’s previous margin of victory, the partisan lean of their district, generic-ballot polling, congressional approval ratings and the incumbent’s congressional voting record. This finding led us to include whether or not a candidate faces a scandal as a variable in our midterm forecast.
But this new revelation about Walker, who has denied the allegation, hasn’t affected our forecast of the Georgia Senate race — at least not yet. That’s because, for one, it doesn’t meet our definition of a scandal. As our forecast defines it, a scandal is a credible accusation of objective criminal or ethical wrongdoing. While Walker’s decision to pay for an abortion may have been hypocritical, it wasn’t illegal. And if being hypocritical were enough to qualify as “scandal-tarred,” most politicians would be slapped with the label!
Moreover, Walker has already been tagged with the scandal variable. Before and during his campaign, multiple previous scandals that meet our definition have come out. Walker’s ex-wife accused him of threatening to kill her and was granted a protective order against him in 2005. He and a business partner were sued after failing to repay $625,000 in loans. Democrats have accused him of multiple campaign-finance violations. And in June, The Daily Beast reported that Walker had fathered three children he had not previously publicly acknowledged.
But right now, the scandal variable barely impacts our forecast. Only 6 percent of the Deluxe forecast for Georgia Senate is based on the “fundamentals,” which include variables like scandals, Georgia’s partisan lean, Warnock’s incumbency and candidate fundraising. That’s because Georgia is a very heavily polled state. And because we have so many polls and it is relatively close to Election Day, almost 60 percent of the forecast is based on survey data.
And, of course, because this story is so recent, none of these polls account for Walker’s abortion controversy. The bad press Walker is receiving may very well damage his standing with voters. The story has already spurred Walker’s adult son Christian, a conservative social-media celebrity, to post critical tweets and videos about the candidate (including one in which he accused Walker of “threatening to kill us”), which could keep Walker’s unsavory personal life in the news. And he doesn’t need to drop 9 points in the polls for this all to have an impact: According to our polling average of the race, Warnock is currently polling 2 points ahead of Walker, so even if the controversy doesn’t hurt Walker, if it prevents him from gaining, that’s a problem for the Republican.
But on the other hand, there might not be many voters left to turn on Walker. Democrats have been airing ads for weeks reminding voters of Walker’s past scandals. And Georgia is also a highly inelastic state, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of swing voters. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also said it will continue campaigning hard in Georgia. Many Republican and Republican-leaning voters in Georgia may feel that too much is at stake (i.e., control of the Senate) for this latest allegation to sway their vote. And, as we wrote in 2018, partisanship often trumps scandal.
As always, we’ll need to wait and see to know for sure how public opinion will change in response to this story. You can bet that we’ll keep an extra close eye on Georgia polling for the next few weeks.