The race between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Georgia may determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. It will also show how much voters care these days about character. My guess: more than the cynics say.
It’s certainly true that, as recently as 10 years ago, America would not have had a debate about whether a candidate for Senate could survive credible allegations of paying for a girlfriend’s abortion and then lying about it, or the disclosure of the existence of two previously unacknowledged children, or the candidate’s own admission of past domestic violence. His polling would have plummeted. His party would have concluded that he had no chance of winning and that continued support for him would bring it discredit.
But the abortion accusation, which Walker denies, does not seem to have cost him many points in polls, even as he continues to advocate a ban on abortion. “Politics, it seems, is too important these days for questions of character to matter,” writes Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen. Donald Trump got elected president in 2016, after all, even after the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Voters are holding politicians to lower standards than they once did. Trump has contributed to the trend, as did Bill Clinton before him. One result is that politicians such as Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., remain in office after a series of scandals that would have made the Borgias blush.
Misconduct can, however, still bring politicians down. In 2017, the Republican candidate for Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, lost in that deep-red state after accusations of sexual assault, including assaults of minors. Even in recent years, many officeholders, including members of Congress such as Reps. Katie Hill and Joe Barton, have decided not to face voters after scandals.
Perhaps the abortion story isn’t hurting Walker in the polls because voters had a low assessment of him beforehand. The same poll that found it had not changed his standing in the race showed him running five points behind Brian Kemp, the Republican governor who is seeking reelection in the state. Walker is running seven points behind Kemp among Republicans and eight points behind among independents. Most voters consider him dishonest.
Pundits and political strategists may have learned the wrong lesson from 2016. Trump was running against a very unpopular Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, one who had been a figure of controversy for decades. Walker does not have a similarly helpful circumstance: His opponent, Warnock, still has more voters who view him favorably than unfavorably. (That’s even though his ex-wife claims that he ran over her foot with a car.)
It may also make a difference that Trump was running for president while Walker is running for Senate. You might think that a minimum level of probity is more important in presidents than in senators. Presidents have vastly more power and responsibility than senators. A senator can neither start a war nor end one. Modern presidents can and do.
But in a political era defined by negative partisanship — in which people are more likely to hate the party they oppose than to love the one they support — the logic flips. Letting the other side capture the presidency is a more devastating loss than letting it take one Senate seat precisely because the presidency matters more. If you’re a voter who leans strongly toward one party or the other, the cost of insisting on a moral test for office is therefore highest when it comes to the White House.
My theory is that moral principles are a kind of luxury for voters, one they indulge more in lower-stakes races. If that’s right, the perverse result is that voters have a higher standard for character for senators than for presidents. Unless there’s a big Republican wave this year, it may still be too high for Walker.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg News columnist, editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: @RameshPonnuru.