ATLANTA–Herschel Walker walked into the First Baptist Church of Atlanta on Tuesday with his Senate campaign in turmoil. A day earlier, an ex-girlfriend said he had paid for her to have an abortion, despite his public opposition to the procedure. His son slammed him on social media as a liar.
Mr. Walker had flatly denied the claim. And any question of whether the Republican Party, its grass-roots activists and evangelicals would break with him seemed quickly put to rest. The audience in the church did not wait to render a verdict: He was greeted with a standing ovation.
From the closed-door confines of that church in Atlanta to the corridors of power in Washington, Republicans raced to close ranks behind Mr. Walker on Tuesday, fearing that any break with the former football star could cost the party a seat that is widely seen as central to the Republican Party’s chances to take control of the Senate in 2022.
“Full speed ahead in Georgia,” declared Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund. The group, the leading Senate Republican super PAC, is aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell and has booked more than $34 million in television ads in the state.
“Republicans stand with him,” added Senator Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The quick consolidation behind Mr. Walker, less than 24 hours after The Daily Beast reported on the abortion claim on Monday, exposed a Republican Party that has become increasingly conditioned to discount questions about personal behavior in pursuit of political victories. While some Republicans said they didn’t believe the report, nearly all party leaders, elected officials and activists dismissed the abortion story as secondary to larger policy goals.
“I have faith and confidence that Herschel will vote the right way,” said Debbie Dooley, a conservative activist in Atlanta who attended the church event specifically to support Mr. Walker, a former football star and first-time candidate.
It’s a trade-off that has paid remarkable dividends in recent years. Social conservatives embraced Donald J. Trump despite his history as a brash former Democrat who once supported abortion rights. He rewarded the movement by appointing three conservatives to the Supreme Court, justices who delivered the long-sought decision to overturn federal abortion rights.
At stake in 2022 could be no less than control of a United States Senate now divided 50-50 between the two parties. Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the Democratic incumbent who won the seat in a runoff election in January 2021, is seeking a full six-year term and is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the nation.
Abortion has emerged as a key issue in the race. Mr. Walker is a staunch opponent, without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. “There’s no exception in my mind,” Mr. Walker told reporters in May.
As abortion energizes Democratic voters this year, particularly in crucial suburban counties, the charges of hypocrisy on abortion, coming even from a son, could threaten Mr. Walker’s chances to make inroads with the independents and women who pushed Georgia into the Democratic column in the 2020 cycle.
While local activists and national party figures attacked the news media and publicly rallied behind Mr. Walker on Tuesday, Republican strategists privately fretted about what might come next, with one answering a reporter’s question about the episode by sending an animated GIF of the Titanic sinking. The Walker Senate campaign has already been rocked by a series of revelations about his tumultuous personal history, including the existence of three children whom he had not mentioned publicly.
The New York Times has not independently confirmed The Daily Beast’s reporting, which quoted an unidentified woman saying she and Mr. Walker had conceived a child in 2009 and decided to end the pregnancy. The woman produced a receipt from the abortion clinic and a deposit receipt with an image of a $700 check said to be from Mr. Walker, dated days later, that she said had covered the cost of the procedure, the outlet said. It also published a “get well” card that the woman said had been signed by Mr. Walker.
Mr. Walker denied the account outright. “I never asked anyone to get an abortion, I never paid for an abortion,” he said on Fox News on Monday night. In a statement, he said he would sue The Daily Beast for defamation on Tuesday. His campaign and lawyer did not respond to questions about whether a lawsuit had been filed.
Adding to the drama was the response from Mr. Walker’s son Christian Walker. A TikTok star known for his unfiltered political posts, the younger Mr. Walker had largely been quiet about his father’s campaign. But in two videos posted on Tuesday he lashed out at his father as a liar who had committed “atrocities” against him and his mother.
His mother, Cindy Grossman, has already been featured in weeks of bruising Democratic ads using old footage of her describing how Mr. Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to pull the trigger. Mr. Walker has not denied that accusation and has said he once struggled with mental illness.
Christian Walker said on Twitter on Monday that “every member” of the family had urged his father not to run for Senate and in a follow-up video on Tuesday, he said conservatives who continued to back his father’s campaign were hypocrites.
“Family values, people?” Christian Walker said. “He has four kids, four different women, wasn’t in the house raising one of them. He was out having sex with other women.”
Mr. Walker responded simply on Twitter on Monday: “I LOVE my son no matter what.” Mr. Walker’s allies drew comparisons to the “Access Hollywood” recording that threatened to derail Mr. Trump in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign–noting Mr. Trump won that race.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Ralph Reed, the prominent social conservative leader based in Georgia, adding that he “100 percent” expected evangelical Christians would stick with Mr. Walker. He even argued that the latest report could lift Republican turnout by rallying social conservatives to defend Mr. Walker.
Per one attendee’s account, as he greeted the audience in the church on Tuesday, Mr. Walker called himself a “sinner saved by grace.” And, before leaving, he gathered the group around him to lay hands and pray, according to attendees. Reporters were not allowed in the event.
Some Republicans lining up behind Mr. Walker questioned the latest allegations. Some didn’t seem to care either way.
“If y’all find a perfect candidate that has never had challenges in their life, I want you to bring them to me and let me meet him or her,” said Dominic LaRiccia, a Republican state representative backing Mr. Walker.
Marci McCarthy, the Republican chair of DeKalb County in the metro Atlanta area, said, “Ultimately Georgia’s voters will put their own lives and livelihoods first because, in either case, they are not voting for fathers and husbands of the year.”
Notably, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican who has been leading his race for re-election, has kept his distance from Mr. Walker. The two have yet to hold a campaign event together this year. Asked about the episode on Tuesday, a spokesman for Mr. Kemp, Cody Hall, did not mention Mr. Walker and said only that the governor was “laser focused” on fund-raising and voter turnout in the final weeks of the campaign.
Mr. Walker has been found to have embellished or misrepresented key elements of his résumé, including claiming he worked in law enforcement, although he did not. For years, his food-distribution company said it would donate a portion of its earnings to charity, but there is little evidence that it did so. His convoluted and confusing stump speeches have made headlines for months.
“You’re not going to convince people who made it this far that Herschel’s really a bad guy,” said Randy Evans, a former Republican National Committee member from Georgia, who supports Mr. Walker and spent Tuesday morning at a Republican county breakfast in northwestern Georgia. “Today’s reaction was everybody offering their ideas how to respond to Warnock’s lies,” he added. “The electorate is hardened–on both sides.”
The base of the Republican Party, in particular, is primed to ignore allegations that appear in the mainstream media, especially anonymous ones, Republican officials say.
“After the fake Russian smear and the lies about Justice Kavanaugh why would I worry about this?” asked Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who represented Georgia. “I am totally for Walker.”
Mr. Walker entered the Senate race in the summer of 2021 with the vocal backing of Mr. Trump and it was immediately clear he would be unstoppable in a Republican primary. By the fall, Mr. McConnell backed Mr. Walker, later calling him “completely electable,” despite the string of controversies.
Christian Walker hinted in his videos that he might have more to say. “I haven’t told one story about what I experienced with him,” he said. “I’m just simply saying, don’t lie.”