Herschel’s Access Hollywood Scandal

herschel walker
G.O.P. Senate nominee Herschel Walker. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
October 6, 2022

Republicans are publicly standing by their man, Herschel Walker. This may seem absurd on some level, given the litany of scandals revealing the multi-layered hypocrisy and unpredictability of their favorite former N.F.L. heartthrob “womb to the tomb” candidate. Despite Walker decrying “fatherless households,” the Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger revealed this summer that he has as many as three secret children. Sollenberger also reported this week that Walker subsidized an abortion for a woman that he impregnated. (Walker has denied this and threatened to sue the pants off The Beast, although he hasn’t followed through. Other mainstream outlets have not verified the claims.) And these revelations are heaped atop Walker’s ex-wife’s claim that he once tried to kill her. (Walker has offered various responses, including telling ABC News in 2008 that he “probably did it” but did not remember, possibly due to psychological issues.) Anyway, a complicated candidate.

Cynically, it’s late in the game for Republicans, fighting for a highly contested Senate majority, to completely drop Walker given that their path to a majority is largely predicated on his race. “What a fucking disaster, we just ride this to the end,” said one Republican strategist consulting other Senate campaigns, but speaking for many in this town. “We’re not going to switch candidates at this point, but we can’t lose Georgia and win the majority.” 

For some, it wasn’t just the fact that Walker may have paid for an abortion, but the way he handled the disclosure. His messy cleanup has caused a lot of head-shaking inside elite G.O.P. circles. Many operatives believe that he should have just copped to this latest revelation, and pronounced himself a reformed man. In Washington, of course, many are conditioned to believe that the cover-up is often worse than the crime. And after initially calling the Beast’s story a “flat-out lie,” Walker has notably equivocated, and reverted to his semi-patented batshit weeble-esque rolling soliloquy of ambiguity. “If that had happened, I would have said there’s nothing to be ashamed of there,” he told Hugh Hewitt today, a notable walk-back. “People have done that, but I know nothing about it.” 

Many Republican operatives told me this week that they’re experiencing  P.T.S.D. flashbacks to the Access Hollywood tape that crashed the 2016 election for about 48 hours (at least until the leaked Hillary email covered it over). Notably, this scandal is also offering some surprising (and possibly ephemeral) hope that, like Trump, Walker isn’t a normal candidate but rather a celebrity who is largely immune to the sort of blowback that would nuke traditional politicians. Walker’s own team is actively trial-ballooning this argument. Scott Paradise, his chief of staff, reportedly alluded to Trump’s scandal when attempting to give his team a pep talk. “Trump still made it to the White House,” Paradise allegedly said. (Paradise denies this. “This comment was never made,” he told me. ”It’s completely false.”) 

Of course, one differentiating factor is that Trump’s family stood by him after the Billy Bush incident. Ivanka didn’t publicly chastise him, nor did Melania. According to some of Maggie Haberman’s reporting at the time, Jared Kushner even somewhat clairvoyantly seemed to realize that the disgust directed at Trump could be manipulated as some pre-woke white-glove, nose-in-the-air liberalism that would mobilize the base. Both of Trump’s ex-wives kept mostly quiet during his campaigns, and occasionally defended him.

Walker, on the other hand, has been practically besieged by negative family testimonials. His ex-wife, Cindy DeAngelis Grossman, has gone on the record about his violent behavior, including the time he held a gun to her head, which she can be seen describing in a 30 second ad pulled from a 2008 interview that has been running up and down Georgia’s largest media markets. Walker has also had to deal with the condemnations of his son, Christian Walker, a conservative, Gen Z social media influencer, who went on a scorched-earth Twitter rant after the most recent Daily Beast story, accusing Herschel of lying about his past. “The surprise element is how hard he’s swinging,” said a former Walker aide, referring to Christian. “I don’t think you can do anything about the son.”

Republican operatives are particularly aggrieved because they feel that Walker’s scandals, though perhaps not avoidable, could have been packaged as a transformative moment for the born-again candidate. “He would have been better off saying, ‘Everyone knows that I’ve struggled in my life and that I’ve failed myself and my family in the past and I’m a different man than I am today,’” said another G.O.P. strategist working on a separate Senate race. “It would have been a one day thing, rather than what it is now.” 

Poll Dance

In fact, the rumors about Walker’s indiscretions had been percolating in the Republican party long before Trump urged him to run. Politico reported that the exact details of this allegation were known to many in his camp months before it came out, but they hoped their candidate would make it through the election without it surfacing. McConnell also knew that Walker was a flawed candidate, I’m told, but made the calculation not to resist him since Trump was such an enthusiastic backer. And anyway, the consultancy class was excited by Walker’s celebrity, seeing him as a football star who could easily pull in big donors and raise cash. “I don’t know that this is terribly shocking to anybody in the know,” said the former Walker aide. “There were always massive rumors about how many baby mamas he had, how many kids he had. It was always met with, No, this is it.”

Publicly, the party poobahs are all in. Steven Law, who runs Mitch McConnell’s cash-rich Senate Leadership Fund, which has spent $15 million in Georgia but pledged to spend $37 million on the race this cycle, proclaimed “full speed ahead” in a statement, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Rick Scott said “Republicans stand with him.” In the meantime, they are hungrily awaiting credible polls to indicate whether or not Walker is a lost cause. It takes about three days to conduct a poll and gather results, so they won’t see anything until next week. “It’s going to be a total game of triage or calculation,” said the first strategist. “There’s no special affection for Herschel, it’s just the most winnable state to invest in right now.”

So it’s all deep breaths until then. If Walker can’t demonstrate Trumpian teflon, and ends up tanking by double digits, there will surely be discussions about where to reposition G.O.P. funds. “Any other candidate is thinking let him flail out and we can get that money,” said the strategist. But would McConnell really turn off the money spigot in Georgia, knowing full well that he could be blamed for giving up on the seat almost everyone agrees is a must-win? We are living in strange times.

An S.L.F. spokesperson rejected that they would be reassessing their options, and pointed to Law’s “full steam ahead” statement where he noted, “anything else is a distraction.” 

Blame Trump?

Walker may be a terrible candidate, but the incessant stories contributing to his fall—the leaks and the bombshells, and the slow drip of unpleasant disclosures—may also be the result of unprecedented staff turnover. Walker has switched strategic consulting teams multiple times, and each team has walked off with infrastructure and little love lost for the candidate. In retrospect, the elite Republican consultant class recognizes that this baggage-filled first-time candidate should have had the same team in place since the summer of 2021. 

Up until June 2022, however, Walker was taking meetings with some of the top consultants in D.C., some of whom told me that they were nervous about working for him. Meanwhile, stories trickled out about staffers not knowing whether to believe his denials. “It’s just inevitable that something like this was going to drop,” the former aide said. “Your secrets don’t stay inside the campaign; everybody knew there were serious situations with kids, with women. The volume was so high from spidey senses, and internal chatter. This doesn’t shock me a bit.”

More than McConnell, the ghostly presence hanging over Walker’s campaign is Trump. He literally called on Walker to run, attracted to his celebrity and athletic skill, even though most of the Republican establishment was aware that Walker’s past would become their future. The donor class, increasingly agitated with Trump and his imprint on the Republican party this cycle, is starting to see this as a mark on him. “It’s wildly unfortunate that this is who Trump picked out, because there were lots of people who were better. If you lose Georgia, it’s an indictment on Trump,” said a consultant who advises major G.O.P. donors. “If we lose Georgia and thus do not take the U.S. senate majority back, it’s 100 percent the fault of Donald Trump. That’s two back-to-back elections in Georgia where Trump will have cost the Senate majority. Period.”

For now, Trump’s new super PAC, MAGA Inc., has not shelled out to help Walker, despite announcing today that they were buying ads in Ohio to help J.D. Vance. The Trump philosophy has long been that he gave these candidates their wings with his endorsement and he doesn’t need to back it up with a check, even if the resulting power vacuum has allowed McConnell to step in and save the day with ad dollars. 

Those close to Trump will defend his decision. Unlike the other weak candidates that he has endorsed, such as Vance or Dr. Oz, Herschel didn’t need Trump to win his primary. He was, of course, already a bonafide celebrity in Georgia, with sky-high name recognition and no real primary challenge. If the Republicans lose the Senate because of Georgia, it may knock out Trump’s kingmaker status to the party establishment, but it won’t impact his viability as a 2024 candidate. His base may not be aware or even care that he selected candidates that led to diminishing returns for Republicans. Plus, Trump can always throw him under the bus.

The Hail Mary

The consensus is that it will be a tight race regardless of the revelation, maybe down to a few hundred votes. According to someone with knowledge of internal polls, G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp was leading Stacey Abrams by 7 to 8 points a couple weeks ago, meaning that he was always going to carry along Walker, who was fundamentally tied with incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock until this scandal. To Democrats, Walker has always been a riddle. “It’s the best chance we have because he’s a loose-cannon gaffe machine with a checkered past with who-knows-what skeletons inside it,” said one Democratic strategist. “It’s also our worst chance, because he’s still a hero to some people in that state, to the University of Georgia, and he does resonate with a lot of Black voters. If Stacey is going to lose and Warnock is the top of the ticket, can she bring everyone across the finish line? Is she strong enough to do that?”

Optimists figure this could have been a lot worse: the news could have dropped two weeks before the election rather than six. There’s always the possibility that Democrats over-blanketed the airwaves with political ads this summer and that people are just tuned out. Politico’s Natalie Allison reported that the 11 p.m. evening news in Georgia led with a story on crime on Wednesday night, not Walker’s latest indiscretions. And the evangelicals are sticking with Walker, for now, holding a “Prayer Warriors for Herschel” event at a Baptist church this week.

The expectation that voters will tune out the noise has long been espoused by Rick Scott, who started spending early for Republicans in August, when Democrats usually spend over the summer. It’s caused him a lot of grief with McConnell-world, who always blanket the airwaves right before the elections. But in the case of Walker, there’s a hope and prayer that Scott was right, and that perhaps the Warnock and Walker narratives have already been defined.  

A McConnell advisor told me that this would have been a bigger deal ten years ago, but with the nation so polarized and evangelicals sticking with Walker, there’s a good chance he can hang on, especially with independents motivated by the economy more than anything else. Worst case scenario, Republicans can always double down in New Hampshire against Sen. Maggie Hassan, a race that hasn’t been entirely abandoned by the G.O.P., where outside groups are outspending Democrats 2 to 1 from now until election day. They’ll know next week if that’s their Hail Mary play.