Analysis | Will old political rules apply to Herschel Walker? They did that 2 years ago with an NC Democrat.
Herschel Walker in Georgia this month? No, Cal Cunningham, the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate in North Carolina two years ago.
In the fall of 2020, Cunningham came forward with a clear lead over Senator Thom Tillis (RN.C.), in part because of his biography as an army prosecutor serving in Iraq. But in early October, he admitted that he had sent sexually explicit messages to a woman who was not his wife, and a few days later she told the media that they were having an intimate affair. Cunningham, a married father of two, declined to answer questions about whether he had other affairs.
In 25 public polls after the revelations and before Election Day, Cunningham led in 22 and tied with two others.
But his campaign had collapsed. Cunningham lost by nearly two percentage points, lagging significantly behind Democrats Joe Biden in the presidential race and Roy Cooper in the governor’s race in Tar Heel state.
“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” said J. Michael Bitzer, an expert in state politics and a professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC. “You threw a monkey wrench into your campaign.”
Cunningham’s fate is by no means a definitive prologue to what will happen to Walker, the former soccer star accused of paying a woman to abort his child in 2009 after he said he became a born-again Christian who opposed abortion rights. .
Walker is engaged in an extremely close race against Senator Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), one of the most critical contests to determine the Senate majority. The abortion story broke out on October 3, two years and a day after the allegations of Cunningham’s affair.
Walker, who is a first-time candidate, has denied the claims but has looked unsteady in several media appearances to explain his past. He has gone down the well-known path of accusing Democrats of trying to distract voters from the real policy.
“They can keep coming at me like that, and they’re doing it because they want to distract people,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday.
The woman has since accused Walker of encouraging her to have a second abortion a few years later, but said she refused and gave birth to their now 10-year-old son.
Cunningham took the same approach in his first media appearance after standing still for a few days. “People are tired of hearing about personal problems. They want someone to focus on them,” he told reporters.
Cunningham had apologized to his family in a statement, but then demanded “that my family’s privacy be respected” and said the affair was not a problem.
In that regard, Cunningham and Walker followed a page from the Donald Trump playbook: Get ahead when a scandal happens, don’t focus on the issue, and accuse your opponents of worse. It worked in 2016.
While GOP officials in Georgia and Washington are strongly behind the Heisman Trophy winner, some unaffiliated Republican strategists in Peach state resented how Walker came through the primaries with the blessing of Trump and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky. ).
“He’s being pushed into this Senate race without ever being vetted,” said Jay Morgan, who worked in Georgia politics for the late Senator Johnny Isakson (R) and advised former Governor Nathan Deal.
Walker has been forced to admit that he fathered several illegitimate children and has discussed atrocities against his first wife, raising concerns that some moderate Republicans and right-wing independents will happily vote for Governor Brian Kemp (R) and then turn down Walker.
“I think it’s more a matter of who’s going to leave the race — who’s going to vote for Kemp and then skip the Senate race,” Morgan said.
That’s exactly what happened to Cunningham two years ago.
That’s his own irony, because months before that, strategists for both parties had thought that Tillis, who had a difficult relationship with Trump, would fall too far behind his party’s presidential candidate when the MAGA voters abandoned him.
Tillis fell 93,000 votes behind Trump’s state totals, in fact falling about 20,000 votes behind Biden’s losing performance in North Carolina.
But Cunningham fell 115,000 votes behind Biden — and 265,000 votes from Cooper’s victorious votes in the governor’s race.
The stench factor was great in the Senate race that year. Nearly 50,000 voters who voted in the presidential race refused to vote in the Senate race.
And nearly 240,000 voters chose one of two fringe candidates in the Senate race, three times the number who voted for a third-party alternative in the presidential contest.
Cunningham’s allegations came at the worst possible time, just two weeks before the early voting began; anyone who doubted had enough time to reconsider their vote.
“That’s when everyone pays attention,” Bitzer said.
His post-election analysis showed that Cunningham took the biggest hit in cities and urban areas, trailing Biden by 65,000 votes and 27,000 votes in the state’s competitive suburbs.
Those results suggest that core Democrats, many of whom had no deep ties to Cunningham, were abandoning him.
Of the 12 candidates who won statewide races in North Carolina two years ago, Tillis received the fewest votes. Cunningham now practices law in Raleigh, with just a single sentence mentioning the 2020 campaign in an 800-word biographical section of his website.
In Georgia, incumbent Republicans don’t expect the core conservatives to abandon Walker, despite the inherent contradiction of their strong anti-abortion views and the possibility that Walker, 60, paid for a girlfriend to undergo the procedure.
Cole Muzio, the president of a Christian-conservative organization outside of Atlanta, sent his supporters a memo Thursday highlighting, in bold, that “much about Herschel Walker’s past is extremely problematic” and that the candidate so far is “between political answers.” and rocked again” on the subject.
But the other choice was another term from Warnock, Muzio told his fellow Christians, emphasizing this part in bold. “Policies voted and supported by Raphael G. Warnock harm my neighbors’ family, their business and their right to worship freely.”
Some Republicans are privately hoping that Walker will get a pass for being a celebrity so that his past behavior is perceived as similar to Trump’s pre-White House days in Manhattan, especially after a video was released shortly before in which he made crude comments about it. assaulting women the 2016 election he still won.
But others fear that public polls had already shown Walker consistently trailing Kemp’s position, and these latest stories, in addition to the first stories about his personal life, could drive Republican-leaning voters even further away from the former football star.
“I think they’re scratching their heads about what to do,” Morgan said.
Georgia is also home to millions of new voters — 1.6 million in just the past four years — many of whom have no loyalty to Walker’s heyday 40 years ago when he was a star athlete at the University of Georgia.
Georgia’s electoral law requires someone to clear 50 percent in the election or else go to a runoff in December involving the top two finishers. Strategists already thought that was an obvious possibility in the very close race.
Now campaign managers and consultants will have to try and check if support is shifting to a libertarian candidate, who could draw those estranged Republicans, or if those voters are simply skipping the Senate race on the ballot.
Bitzer said he couldn’t predict how the Walker scandals will play out this fall, but he said no doubt some of the old rules still apply to Cunningham.
“He would have had a better chance if he had kept his drawers closed,” he said.