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Republicans confront (or sidestep) abuse accusations against midterm candidates

Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker walks off the stage during a rally featuring former President Donald Trump on Sept. 25 in Perry, Georgia.
Sean Rayford
Getty Images
Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker walks off the stage during a rally featuring former President Donald Trump on Sept. 25 in Perry, Georgia.

A recent ad from Gary Black, a Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, opens with a message on the screen: "Imagine what Democrats would do to Herschel Walker if he becomes the Republican nominee."

Meanwhile, a voter settles into their sofa and turns on the TV, which plays a hypothetical Democratic attack ad: "Did you know Herschel's ex-wife accused him of, quote, 'physically abusive and extremely threatening behavior?' " a voice asks. "That she desperately sought a protective order after Walker threatened to kill her?"

Black's ad is attacking Walker for his alleged violence. But the ultimate framing here is about whether he can win and how Democrats will attack him in a general election bid against Sen. Raphael Warnock. Indeed, the ad ends with a lengthy cut of NBC's Chuck Todd saying that Warnock, a Democrat, would be better off running against Walker.

It's emblematic of political calculations in multiple congressional races nationwide in which Republican candidates are accused of past violence and abuse.

The party, voters and candidates themselves are reacting to allegations in different ways

Walker has the endorsements of both former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Axios' Jonathan Swan asked McConnell this month about how he did the calculus to endorse Walker despite the abuse accusations.

McConnell responded, "The way I always do: a variety of different considerations. Every candidate has flaws and assets. This candidate has a lot of assets and is very competitive and has a great chance of winning."

Here, too, it came down to electability.

In a December interview, also with Axios, Walker did not deny his ex-wife's allegations. He also has written and spoken openly about his struggle with dissociative identity disorder, saying it has caused him to have periods of time he does not remember.

All of that may soften the allegations against Walker for voters, according to Georgia Republican strategist Jay Williams.

"People are accusing him of stuff he disclosed in his own book," he said. "So, I think everybody knows he's had some struggles with mental health and mental wellness, and I do believe that people are going to probably give him a pass. I don't think that this is activity he's regularly involved with now."

Walker does, however, deny two other women's allegations of threats and harassment, for which he was never arrested or charged. Black's ad highlights these allegations as well.

Williams, the Republican strategist, also noted that Warnock's ex-wife accused him of running over her foot with his car. The Democratic senator denies this, and first responders found no evident injury.

Walker has some advantages, says Williams. One is his status as a University of Georgia football hero and NFL star.

Simple partisanship is an advantage for candidates facing ugly allegations

"Literally, you could put two potted plants against each other," Williams said. "One of them could be a potted plant against Warnock, or Warnock could be a potted plant against Herschel. Democrats are going to vote for whoever is in that spot, and Republicans are going to vote for whoever is in their spot."

Not all candidates stick around after being accused of ugly behavior. Sean Parnell was endorsed by Trump in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race, but Parnell dropped out after he lost a custody battle in which his ex-wife accused him of abusing her and their children. Parnell denied the accusations.

Meanwhile, Senate candidate Eric Greitens of Missouri is pushing forward in his race for the seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt. Greitens' ex-wife recently alleged that he abused both her and their children.

That's on top of past allegations that he blackmailed a woman with whom he had an affair. Those allegations ended his governorship.

Axios' Swan also asked McConnell about Greitens.

"This is a man accused of tying a woman up, blindfolding her, taking nude photographs of her for the purposes of blackmail, then coercing her into sexual acts," Swan said. "Do you think he's electable?"

"I think the voters in the Missouri primary would take all of that into account," McConnell responded.

The party is clearly split on how to respond. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has called on Greitens to drop out: "If you hit a woman or a child, you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate."

A candidate may defiantly run against abuse allegations

Greitens, for his part, has tied the accusations into his self-portrayal as an anti-establishment Republican.

He took on a sort of Trumpian defiance in a March video, claiming that the accusations are part of a conspiracy by McConnell and Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush:

"We are no longer going to allow you not just to attack me and attack my kids, but to destroy this country, and that's what you're doing. You're making life hard for millions of families around this country by cooperating with the left, by stabbing President Trump in the back, by stabbing the people of America in the back, and we're not going to stand for it anymore."

Recent polling suggests that the accusations have eliminated Greitens' lead but that he nevertheless remains competitive in Missouri's Republican primary.

One other candidate accused of abuse is former Trump aide Max Miller, running in Ohio for an open U.S. House seat. Miller is accused of abusing ex-girlfriend Stephanie Grisham — another former Trump aide — including pushing her against a wall and slapping her. He denies this and has filed suit against Grisham for defamation.

Either way, Miller still has a good chance of winning, says David B. Cohen, a professor at the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"As the district is currently drawn, it's a plus-14 Republican district," he said. "So I think that the accusations against Miller from Stephanie Grisham, I just — I don't think any of it's going to make an impact on whether he wins the race."

Given that voters, party leaders and candidates themselves have responded differently to different allegations of abuse, there's no unified theory of how those accusations affect a Republican campaign — except, perhaps, this summation from Cohen: "What was once unacceptable and a career killer in politics is not necessarily a career killer anymore."

To Cohen, that's far more true for Republicans than for Democrats. As he put it, "If there was no difference [between] the Democratic and Republican party, Al Frankenwould still be a senator."

And to Cohen, it all ties back to Trump, a man accused of many instances of sexual misconduct and abuse, all of which he denies.

"I kind of think of it as the pre-Access Hollywood world and the post-Access Hollywood world," he said. "Anybody with a pulse that was following politics in 2016 thought that the Access Hollywood tape would sink Donald Trump's candidacy. Trump proved that you could win even with legitimate serious questions about a candidate's moral character and with legitimate accusations of sexual assault."

For Trump, winning is everything, and arguments like the one in the Gary Black ad, linking abuse allegations to electability, are a sign that he's not alone.

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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