But the abortion charge, which Walker denies, doesn’t seem to have cost him many points in polls, even as he continues to push for an abortion ban. “It seems politics is too important for character issues these days,” writes Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen. After all, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, even after the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Voters hold politicians to lower standards than they once did. Trump contributed to the trend, as did Bill Clinton before him. One result is that politicians such as Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican from Tennessee, are staying in office after a string of scandals that are said to have made the Borgias blush.
However, misconduct can still bring down politicians. In 2017, Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, lost in that scarlet state after allegations of sexual assault, including assault on minors. Even in recent years, many office holders, including members of Congress such as Representatives Katie Hill and Joe Barton, have decided not to meet with voters after scandals.
Perhaps the abortion story doesn’t hurt him in the polls, because voters had previously rated him poorly. The same poll that found it hadn’t changed his position in the race showed he was five points behind Brian Kemp, the Republican governor seeking re-election in the state. Walker is seven points behind Kemp among Republicans and eight points behind Independents. Most voters think he is unfair.
Experts and political strategists may have learned the wrong lesson from 2016. Trump took on a highly unpopular Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, someone who had been a controversial figure for decades. Walker doesn’t have a comparable favorable circumstance: His opponent, Warnock, still has more voters who rate him favorably than unfavorably. (That’s even though his ex-wife claims he ran over her foot with a car.)
It could also make a difference that Trump ran for president while Walker ran for the Senate. You might think that a minimum of honesty is more important with presidents than with senators. Presidents have far more power and responsibility than senators. A senator cannot start or end a war; modern presidents can and do.
But in a political era defined by negative partisanship—where people hate the party they oppose rather than the one they support—the logic shifts. Letting the other party take the presidency is a more devastating loss than letting it take one Senate seat, precisely because the presidency matters more. Therefore, if you are a voter with a strong bias towards one side or the other, the cost of pushing for a moral test for office is highest when it comes to the White House.
My theory, that is, is that moral principles are a kind of luxury for voters, one that they do more in lower-stakes races. If that’s true, the perverse result is that voters have a higher standard of character for senators than for presidents. Unless there’s a big Republican wave this year, it could still be too high for Herschel Walker.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Why the Republicans ended up with Herschel Walker: Jonathan Bernstein
• The only thing that can save Herschel Walker: Joshua Green
• Democrats Try to Convince While Republicans Try to Mobilize: Julianna Goldman
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion