Former football star Herschel Walker is the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, a nomination he won after building a profile as a right-wing personality in the last decade or so. Like other conservatives, Walker sometimes describes problems in the Black U.S. population as the consequence of individual failings rather than structural discrimination, and has a habit in particular of criticizing Black men who create “fatherless” homes by abandoning their children. Walker’s 22-year-old son Christian is himself a right-wing social media personality, and Walker has spoken about his close relationship with Christian when discussing family-related topics. (See this late May discussion on PBS.)
On June 14, though, the Daily Beast reported that Walker has a 10-year-old son whom he does not see, and whom he did not legally acknowledge until being taken to court. Then, on June 15—that’s one day after June 14—the Daily Beast reported that Walker has a 13-year-old son as well. In confirming this, Walker’s campaign also disclosed that he has a daughter who is about 40 years old.
Fortunately for Walker, the pattern that this suggested—one undisclosed child the first day, two the next, four the day after that, eight the next day, and so forth—has not obtained. The equilibrium has settled at four total Herschel Walker children. Unfortunately for him and his claims to family-related moral authority, though, it appears that each was born to a different woman, and that, as the New York Times puts it, it is “unclear” how involved he has been in the lives of any of them besides Christian, except in the case of the child whose mother sued him.
One of Walker’s next public appearances after these stories broke was at an evangelical Christian conference in Nashville, Tennessee, that describes itself as the nation’s most high-profile “pro-family event.” Naturally, he received “resounding applause,” telling the crowd that he is “tired of people misleading the American people” and, for some reason, “tired of people misleading my family.”
This not entirely comprehensible declaration spoke to what was previously Walker’s most notable attribute as a candidate: the frequency with which he says things that either don’t make sense or are not true. Among the Walker statements that have come to light during the campaign are false claims that he has been a police officer and an FBI agent, that he was the valedictorian of both his college and high school classes, that he graduated from college at all, that he never claimed to have graduated from college, that he founded a charity for military veterans, and that he founded the largest minority-owned food-supply and upholstery companies in the United States.
Here’s what Walker said on Fox News, meanwhile, about how the United States should respond to the Uvalde, Texas, massacre: “What about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women, that’s looking at their social media? What about doing that?” In his defense, this answer seems to gesture at a real truth: Mass shootings are often carried out by young men who leave a trail of misogyny online. On the other hand, it is literally an assertion that the government should create, or “get,” a “department” that would “look at” young men who are “looking at women”—a mission one could charitably describe as impossibly broad.
However, none of this has created a problem for Walker inside the Republican Party, whose primary he won in late May with 68 percent of the vote. This speaks to a broader trend where the kinds of scandals and criticisms that would traditionally force a politician to resign from office or drop out of a given race actually seem to strengthen a MAGA politician’s standing within the GOP, because they demonstrate that he or she is not politically correct and is being targeted, libeled, etc., by “the establishment.”
You can see a similar dynamic playing out in Missouri, where former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office in 2018 after being accused of forcibly detaining, sexually assaulting, and blackmailing a hairstylist, appears to be leading the Republican Senate primary. Incidentally, two women who had relationships with Walker have accused him of threatening to kill them. He denies one of the allegations and says he does not remember the incident in question in the other.
But while these scandals haven’t hurt Walker much with his GOP base, might they with … other people? The nihilistic and often correct response to ghastly, humiliating developments in modern U.S. politics is to say it won’t matter. There are fewer swing voters and ideologically heterodox candidates (conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans) than there used to be. “Negative partisanship”—voting for one party mostly because you don’t like the other one—has become more common. Republicans are going to get a certain percentage of the vote no matter what and Democrats are going to get a certain percentage of the vote no matter what. Local vote shares are increasingly correlated with preexisting partisan identification and the “national environment” (how popular the president is, basically) and less correlated with the sorts of things that political scientists can classify as measures of “candidate quality”—name recognition and personal favorability, fundraising ability, ideological orientation relative to the local electorate, and so forth.
Practically, this means that politicians can ride out incidents that would previously have been disqualifying and win not only their next primary, but their next general election as well. Setting aside Trump, who benefited greatly from these forces in his race against Hillary Clinton, you can find examples on both sides of the aisle. During his successful 2017 run for Congress, for instance, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte was charged with assault after body-slamming a reporter to the ground. He is now the state’s governor.* Former White House physician Ronny Jackson won a spot in Congress representing Texas despite a Pentagon report that found he had gotten drunk and sedated on the job, made lewd comments about one co-worker to another, and whaled on a female subordinate’s hotel room door “in the middle of the night.” (The accusations did force him to withdraw from consideration to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.) Democrat Bob Menendez retained his New Jersey Senate seat in 2018 after sitting for a corruption trial that ended in a hung jury.
But! As Split Ticket election analyst Lakshya Jain explained to me, candidate quality still matters some. (If it didn’t, Roy Moore would be an Alabama senator despite reportedly being such a creep that he was banned from a local mall for harassing underage girls.) In this data set involving 2018 and 2020 House races, for example, candidates who got higher or lower shares of the vote than would be expected from the partisan makeup of their districts in 2018 were likely to do the same thing in 2020. This suggests there was something inherent to these candidates that made them do better or worse than the average Democrat or Republican would have done.
One of the traits that could explain Republican underperformance is what we might call non-ideological extremism, or perhaps MAGA Personality Syndrome: lying, making offensive comments about minority groups, having a history of being investigated for misconduct or accused of crimes. There are still white, college-educated voters in many suburban areas who might sometimes vote Republican but can be turned off by these MAGA candidates—and, as Jain notes, Georgia is heavy on such voters, particularly in the Atlanta area. “I’d think Herschel Walker is prone to losing ground with them,” he says.
Indeed, as Amy Walter notes in the Cook Political Report, the latest Georgia Senate poll (taken before the recent paternity stories were published) found that Walker was only supported by 81 percent of voters who disapprove of the job Joe Biden is doing as president. There are Georgia voters who’d be open to voting for a Republican—in fact, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp was running 4 points ahead of Walker overall in the same poll—but weren’t sold on the pretend-FBI “department of men looking at women” candidate. It’s a safe guess that finding out he’s been weird about how many kids he has won’t help either.
Correction, June 22, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Greg Gianforte as Wyoming’s governor. He is the governor of Montana.