Republicans confront (or sidestep) abuse accusations against midterm candidates Candidates such as Herschel Walker, Eric Greitens and Max Miller have been accused of abusing partners and, in some cases, children. But some party leaders aren't convinced voters will reject them.

Republicans confront (or sidestep) abuse accusations against midterm candidates

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The Republican Party has a lot of advantages in this fall's election. The party also faces a problem in multiple congressional races. What do they do when a candidate is accused of past abuse of a partner or a child? Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: A recent ad from Gary Black, a Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, opens with a message on the screen saying, imagine what Democrats would do to Herschel Walker if he becomes the nominee. And then a hypothetical Democratic attack ad appears on a voter's TV.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Did you know Herschel's ex-wife accused him of, quote, "physically abusive and extremely threatening behavior," that she desperately sought a protective order after Walker threatened to kill her?

KURTZLEBEN: Black's ad is, yes, attacking Walker for his alleged violence. But the ultimate framing here is about whether Walker can win and how Democrats will attack him in a general election bid against Senator Raphael Warnock. 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 those allegations in different ways. Walker has the endorsements of both Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Axios' Jonathan Swan asked McConnell early this month how he did the calculus to endorse Walker despite the abuse accusations.


MITCH MCCONNELL: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Here, too, it comes down to electability. In a December interview also with Axios, Walker did not deny his ex-wife's allegations. He has also written and spoken openly about his struggle with dissociative identity disorder, saying it has caused him to have periods he does not remember. All of that may soften the allegations against Walker for voters, according to Georgia Republican strategist Jay Williams.

JAY WILLIAMS: People were accusing him of stuff, like, he disclosed in his own book. So I think everybody knows he's had some struggles with mental health. And so 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Walker does, however, deny allegations of threats and harassment from two other women for which he was never arrested or charged. Gary Black's ad highlights those allegations as well. Williams, the Republican strategist, also noted that Raphael 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. Herschel Walker has some advantages, says Williams - one is his status as a University of Georgia football hero and NFL star, another is simple partisanship.

WILLIAMS: Literally, you could put two potted plants against each other. One of them could be a potted plant against Warnock. Or Warnock could be, you know, a potted plant against Herschel. I mean, Democrats are going to vote for whoever's in that spot. And Republicans are going to vote for whoever's in that - in their spot.

KURTZLEBEN: Not all candidates stick around after being accused of ugly behavior. Sean Parnell was endorsed by Trump in the Pennsylvania Senate race. But he 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, Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens is pushing forward in his race. 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' Jonathan Swan also asked McConnell about Greitens.


JONATHAN SWAN: 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. Do you think he's electable?

MCCONNELL: I think the voters in the Missouri primary will take all of that into account.

KURTZLEBEN: The party is clearly split on how to respond. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has called on Greitens to drop out, saying, if you hit a woman or a child, you belong in handcuffs, not the United States Senate. 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 the accusations are part of a conspiracy by elite Republicans, like McConnell.


ERIC GREITENS: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Recent polling showed that despite the accusations, Greitens remains competitive in that 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 her for defamation. Either way, he still has a good chance of winning, says David B. Cohen, professor at the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron.

DAVID B COHEN: As the district is currently drawn, it's a +14 Republican district. So I think that the accusations against Miller from Stephanie Grisham, I don't think any of it's going to make an impact on whether he wins the race.

KURTZLEBEN: Given that voters, party leaders and candidates themselves have responded differently to allegations of abuse, there is no unified theory of how those accusations affect a Republican campaign, except, perhaps, this.

COHEN: What was once unacceptable and a career-killer in politics is not necessarily a career-killer anymore.

KURTZLEBEN: To Cohen, that's more true for Republicans than for Democrats. And to him, it all ties back to Trump, a man accused of many instances of sexual misconduct and abuse, all of which he denies.

COHEN: Well, I kind of think of it as the pre-Access Hollywood world and the post-Access Hollywood world. 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.

KURTZLEBEN: For Trump, winning is everything. And arguments like that Gary Black ad, linking abuse allegations to electability, are a sign that he's not alone.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


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