ATLANTA – Republican Senate heavyweights campaigned alongside Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker, brushing aside allegations that the football icon once paid for an abortion and arguing that a Republican Senate majority should be voters’ foremost priority.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, used a stop Tuesday on the edge of metro Atlanta to concentrate on defeating Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and rebuking President Joe Biden’s leadership in the upcoming midterm elections.
The senators did not directly address questions about whether they talked privately with Walker about reports that he paid for and encouraged an abortion in 2009 for a woman with whom he later fathered a child.
“I think it ought to be about the issues. ... Everybody should vote for what’s good for them,” Scott said, though he still managed several swipes at Warnock's personal life.
In a taped interview broadcast Wednesday on ABC's “Good Morning America,” Walker replied “no” when asked if he ever had a conversation with the woman at any time about an abortion and whether he ever gave anyone money to pay for an abortion. “She's lying,” he said of his accuser.
On stage in Georgia, Scott and Cotton painted a dystopian portrait of America under Biden and a Democratic Senate majority: “men destroying women's sports” and “the FBI intimidating parents when they speak up at school board meetings” and “fentanyl pouring into our country ... and killing our children.”
The visit from national Republicans illuminates a simple reality for GOP leaders who were skeptical about Walker's candidacy before he became the nominee: They have no choice but to stick with a candidate who remains competitive in a state that is almost surely necessary for Republicans to break the Senate's current 50-50 partisan split.
Georgia's outcome has gained importance with Republican nominees in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Arizona potentially underperforming in races the GOP had targeted heading into the 2022 election season.
Scott promised that more Republican senators would campaign with Walker in Georgia before the Nov. 8 election.
Walker, for his part, stuck to his usual speech Tuesday and did not join Scott and Cotton when they took questions from reporters. When Scott was pressed on whether he'd asked Walker directly about the allegations, the senator avoided the question by noting the candidate's denials.
The reporting by The Daily Beast complicates Walker’s candidacy in multiple ways. Supporting an absolute national ban on abortions as a candidate, Walker faces questions from at least some skeptical religious conservatives now weighing their preference for Republican rule against the possibility that Walker’s personal life has not matched his public profile.
Yet Walker’s evolving explanations — initially insisting he had no idea who could have claimed he paid for her abortion, only for the woman to identify herself as the mother of one of Walker’s four children — have undermined his absolute denials and given Democrats a fresh opportunity to press their assertions that he’s “not ready” for the Senate.
That’s an argument Warnock has aimed at the middle of the Georgia electorate, including GOP-leaning voters who helped Biden narrowly win Georgia in November 2020 and then elevated Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff to Senate runoff victories two months later.
“I think Georgians will see there is a very clear choice,” Warnock told reporters Tuesday after speaking to voters in Atlanta. “Do you know what's not close? It's the difference between me and my opponent. And I think that will become clearer and clearer.”
Warnock, who supports abortion rights, has avoided the specifics of the allegations against Walker.
The Daily Beast reporting includes records, supplied by the woman, that include a $575 receipt for an abortion, a get-well card signed by Walker and a bank deposit showing a $700 personal check from Walker, dated five days after the abortion receipt. The woman, who has not been identified by name, also told The Daily Beast that Walker encouraged the abortion and then encouraged a second abortion that she refused, giving birth to a child she says Walker has met only a few times.
Previous reports have detailed how Walker exaggerated his academic achievements, business success and his philanthropic activities, as well as accusations that he threatened the life of his ex-wife.
Walker, who had spoken publicly about adult son Christian Walker, was forced to publicly acknowledge having three additional children — including the child of the woman who said he paid for her abortion — after another Daily Beast story earlier in the campaign. Christian Walker has drawn his own headlines since the latest Daily Beast reports, blasting his father as an absentee father and a “liar.”
Certainly, the enthusiastic crowd that gathered Tuesday in Carrollton has decided to stick with Walker. But that doesn't mean Walker has escaped intense scrutiny from the electorate.
“It was a little rocky at the start,” said Lydia Hallmark, who wore a “Women for Herschel” button, of the abortion reports. “But I think people understand that people change, and they grow.” Asked whether that means she doubts Walker's account, Hallmark said, “We weren't there.”
Fellow Republicans she's talked to, Hallmark continued, “have used the word redemption,” a notion Walker has featured in a recent television ad about his struggles with mental health. “I don’t know what happened,” she continued. “But I know that he has asked for forgiveness for other things. And if you’re redeemed for one thing, I guess you are for another.”
Scott, for all his emphasis on the national stakes in the election, tacitly acknowledged the uneasy landscape for Republicans when he contradicted his own insistence that the contest should remain about issues. After several minutes of reiterating his preferred message, the senator turned a question about Walker into a personal takedown of Warnock.
“Has anyone asked Warnock about the allegations against Warnock?” Scott asked, repeatedly mispronouncing the incumbent's name as “WAR'-nick.”
Scott alluded to a March 2020 incident in which Warnock's then-wife, Oulèye Ndoye, told police he ran over her foot with his vehicle. Police records state that officers found no evidence that Warnock did so. The couple divorced before Warnock's election to the Senate, and they share two young children.
Martha Zoller, a popular conservative radio host who supports Walker, has noted Warnock's past as fair game, but she's reserved her harshest criticism for Walker and said it is “getting harder and harder for some (Republicans) to justify” voting for their nominee.
Ultimately, she said, the choice for some voters will come down to the same calculation that Scott, Cotton and their Washington colleagues already have made.
“If they see Walker as a guy that’s going to vote against Joe Biden, and he’s going to rebalance the power in the Senate, then they will continue to vote for Herschel Walker,” Zoller said. “If they believe that he has gone too far in his personal life, and they can’t support that, they will either not vote or vote against him.”
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections