WASHINGTON — On Monday, the stridently antiabortion Senate candidate Herschel Walker, a Georgia Republican, faced a damning report that he funded the 2009 abortion of a woman he impregnated, which prompted one of his children to publicly allege the former football star threatened to kill him and his mother.
Then on Tuesday, national Republicans made it clear they were doubling down on Walker’s candidacy anyway.
“This is just like the smears they attempted against Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, and it will not work,” said Senator Rick Scott of Florida, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referring to two Supreme Court justices who were accused of sexual misconduct before they were confirmed. “Herschel has denied these allegations and the NRSC and Republicans stand with him, and Georgians will stand with him too.”
Still, the drama roiled his campaign just as Walker appeared to be gaining momentum in the race against the incumbent, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. And the episode underscored how, in a year when the political headwinds would seem to favor Republicans, their controversial nominees — many of whom won primaries with the support of former president Donald Trump — are hamstrung in winnable races, leaving it still unclear who will control the Senate next year.
“If you think of the 2022 elections as a video game, and Republicans are the main player, it’s almost like they set the video game to hard mode,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an elections newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
It has all left Republicans contemplating a surreal political calculus: Can Walker withstand the abortion story and the public condemnation of his son Christian, who has his own right-wing following on social media? Are Trump-backed candidates who have trailed in other states showing any signs of improvement?
And also, whether it will fall to celebrity television doctor Mehmet Oz, who is running for an open seat in Pennsylvania, to bail the party out, even though Oz himself was the subject of an unflattering story on Monday alleging his medical research killed hundreds of dogs.
“I’ll see what sort of response he mounts, but given text messages tonight, Georgia GOP’ers are praying for Dr. Oz to win,” Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host based in the state, wrote on Twitter Monday night.
With the Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties, Republicans need to gain only one seat to control the chamber. That goal should be easily in reach given historic trends that favor the party out of power in a midterm election, persistent inflation trimming families’ spending power, and President Biden’s anemic approval ratings.
But to forecasters and Republican strategists, control of the Senate still looks too close to call. Part of the reason is that candidates who embraced Trump’s conspiracy theories and took hard right positions on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade are struggling to appeal to voters in the middle.
“Despite the national political environment, candidate quality matters,” said Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability PAC, a GOP group campaigning against six Republican candidates, including Walker, whom it sees as a threat to democracy. “What it’s doing in a lot of cases is alienating a decisive voting bloc: college-educated swing voters who decided the election for Joe Biden.”
Over the past year, Republican governors of states such as Arizona and New Hampshire opted not to run for Senate, and the candidates who did appear to have a narrower appeal. Many of them benefited from the endorsement of Trump, who values loyalty over traditional electability.
“I think Trump sort of doing his own thing, in terms of endorsing candidates against the establishment, that’s opened the door to make some of these races more competitive,” Coleman said.
In Arizona, Trump-backed businessman Blake Masters has tried to back away from unpopular positions he previously took on abortion and Social Security and finds himself trailing Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in the polls. In New Hampshire, Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat with low approval ratings, has opened an 8-point lead over the election-denying Republican Don Bolduc, according to the latest Globe poll.
Control of the Senate is likely to come down to the races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada, said Jessica Taylor, the editor for Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns at the Cook Political Report.
In Pennsylvania, Oz secured Trump’s endorsement and beat a more establishment-friendly businessman, Dave McCormick. But he has lagged behind the Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. A spate of recent polls shows Oz is gaining on Fetterman after attacking him on crime and his health, prompting the Cook Political Report on Tuesday to move the race from its “lean Democratic” rating back to its “tossup” column.
“Pennsylvania’s moving back that way, but nothing’s for certain,” Taylor said. “They’ve just succeeded in increasing Fetterman’s unfavorability rating because of all the hits on crime.”
Nevada, where Republican Adam Laxalt has a narrow lead in polls over Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, is swiftly coming into view as his party’s best opportunity to pick up a seat. Laxalt cuts a more typical political figure — he is a former Nevada attorney general whose grandfather was governor and a senator from the state. Cortez-Masto is homing in on his opposition to abortion rights.
“That may be the most normal race in a way,” Taylor said, adding that Republicans “can still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”
Other Trump-endorsed candidates are running into more trouble than they expected in reliably Republican states.
In Ohio, which Trump won in 2020 by 8 percentage points, national Republicans are spending heavily to buttress Trump-backed J.D. Vance, a writer who kept an unusually low profile over the summer in his race against Democratic Representative Tim Ryan. And in North Carolina, Republican Representative Ted Budd is locked in a tight race with Democrat Cheri Beasley.
Georgia, meanwhile, requires candidates to win a clear majority or face a runoff with the second top vote-getter, as there is a third candidate, Libertarian Chase Oliver, on the ballot. But the allegations against Walker could make it even harder for him to avoid that.
Even as national groups offered their steadfast backing, Georgia Republicans such as Governor Brian Kemp — who won his own primary despite Trump endorsing his opponent — stopped short of defending Walker by name in a statement his campaign provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Meanwhile, Walker’s son Christian defended himself against Republicans who were angry he had come out so publicly against his father.
”This is a candidate issue,” Christian Walker said in a video he posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning. “It’s not a me issue.”