‘They’re desperate’: Herschel Walker denies abortion reports

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

WADLEY — Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker rejected claims that he paid for a 2009 abortion for a woman who said she later bore his child, saying at a campaign stop that it was part of a plot by allies of Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to damage his campaign.

“I know why you’re here,” he read from a prepared statement to a few dozen reporters at an east Georgia lumber yard. “You’re here because the Democrats are desperate to hold on to this seat here, and they’re desperate to make this race about my family.”

Walker’s campaign was in damage control following The Daily Beast’s reports, which undercut his opposition to abortion, and criticism from his adult son Christian, who labeled his father a “liar,” accused him of threatening his family with violence and urged him to wear a condom.

In a tense exchange with media members after his stump speech, Walker repeatedly said the outlet’s report was false. Of Christian Walker’s comments, the Republican candidate said: “I love my son so much. I will always love him no matter what.”

“Anything that happened with my ex-wife, what Christian said, I don’t know,” he added.

The increased scrutiny is nothing new for Walker, who has faced damaging reports about his history of violent behavior and pattern of lies, exaggerations and gaffes on the campaign trail. Despite those concerns, Walker steamrolled his GOP rivals in the May primary and is neck-and-neck with Warnock in many polls.

But the reports amount to the most serious threats to his campaign yet, and Thursday’s event was billed by Walker’s allies as a chance to steady his campaign.

The Walker campaign summoned reporters to a rural lumber yard three hours outside Atlanta. The crowd for his speech was made up primarily of shift workers on their lunch break who listened politely but without much enthusiasm. “When is this over?” one muttered.

Yet, rather than confront the reports head-on, as many Republican officials hoped, Walker delivered his usual stump speech and made no mention of the controversy until questioned by reporters.

“I’m not going to back down,” Walker said outside his campaign bus. “The stakes are way, way too high. We’re going to win this race.”

‘I could care less’

Walker has little time to reboot his campaign ahead of a November election that could decide control of the Senate. The sole debate between Warnock and Walker is set for next week, and early voting begins Oct. 17.

Many Walker skeptics were already considering skipping the race or voting for Warnock. Polls for months have showed a split-ticket trend, with a significant number of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s backers signaling they’ll withhold their support for Walker.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“I just can’t do it,” said Vince Jantz, an east Cobb County resident who recently told Republican volunteers at his doorstep he planned to vote for every GOP candidate on the ballot except Walker. “Everything that’s been reported about him concerns me.”

There is anecdotal evidence that trend is intensifying. Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and a Gainesville-based radio host, said she’s received many calls from Republicans with concerns about Walker.

“They don’t know if they can believe him or the allegations,” Zoller said. “I still believe that ultimately people are going to vote based on their pocketbook. And I think that means this is likely to go into a runoff.”

Still, other Republicans say the scrutiny intensifies their support for the former football star. Religious leaders rallied around him at a closed-door meeting this week, with the Rev. Anthony George leading a prayer at First Baptist Church Atlanta to honor “our fellow conqueror, our brother, our friend.”

So did some rank-and-file Republicans.

”I don’t put any credence into anything at this point of a campaign. I could care less if he paid for somebody’s abortion,” said Mike Upchurch, a 68-year-old Republican from Acworth. “You know what? I can close my eyes and watch the fabulous games he played as a running back with Georgia ... and, well, I wouldn’t vote for a Democrat anyway.”

And national conservative groups have stressed their commitment to the race, mindful that Georgia still offers the GOP one of its only paths to flipping control of the U.S. Senate.

‘Rattled’

The Daily Beast story was the second in a week that plunged Walker’s campaign into turmoil, following a Monday report that Walker paid for the woman’s abortion in 2009.

Walker supports a ban on the procedure without exceptions.

After Walker denied the report and said repeatedly he had no idea who the woman might be, The Daily Beast reported that the anonymous woman conceived a child with him years after the abortion. She told the outlet that Walker’s denial surprised her.

“Sure, I was stunned, but I guess it also doesn’t shock me, that maybe there are just so many of us that he truly doesn’t remember,” the woman told the outlet. “But then again, if he really forgot about it, that says something, too.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has not verified The Daily Beast’s report. The Daily Beast said that it independently corroborated details of the woman’s claims with a close friend she told at the time and who also took care of her in the days after the procedure. The woman declined to comment when reached Thursday by the AJC.

While Republicans are nervous, many aren’t in panic mode, hopeful that many conservatives either are paying little attention to the developments or value Walker’s party affiliation over every other factor.

Some call it the Dana Loesch strategy, after the GOP strategist’s controversial take earlier this week: “I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate.”

Richard Claxton of Swainsboro has been a fan of Walker’s since he celebrated the University of Georgia’s championship football season in 1980 while serving in the military in South America. Claxton drove about 20 miles to the Wadley event to cheer Walker, who starred on that team.

“A long time ago someone told me, ‘Believe half you hear and half you see.’ So I’m skeptical,” he said of the abortion reports. “But if he did it, people can be forgiven in this world.”

Even as national Republicans vouch for Walker, key Georgia figures are responding in a different way. The reactions of Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr are telling: Neither defended Walker, and Kemp said he’s focusing on his own campaign.

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

“Even the most staunch Republicans are rattled,” Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told CNN. “Every Republican knew that there was baggage out there, but the weight of that baggage is starting to feel a little closer to unbearable at this point.”

Staff writers Lautaro Grinspan and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.