By Manu Raju, Gabby Orr and Alex Rogers, CNN
Herschel Walker and his campaign are scrambling to contain the fallout from a new report alleging that the hardline anti-abortion candidate paid for his then-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009.
Republican groups are publicly vowing to spend huge money to help Walker overcome the late controversy. But Republicans are privately acknowledging the report, which Walker has vehemently denied, could be a death blow — and are trying to limit the damage to his campaign.
Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise addressed staff on Tuesday morning, telling aides that the allegation that Walker had paid for an abortion was a setback this close to the election, according to a source familiar with the remarks.
Paradise also alluded to the explosive “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced just weeks before the 2016 presidential election showing then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump admitting to sexually assaulting women.
“Trump still made it to the White House,” Paradise told staff, adding that Walker’s campaign had seen a surge in fundraising in the hours since Walker forcefully denied the allegations. Paradise later denied on Twitter that he referenced the “Access Hollywood” episode saying, “This is all false (except for the part about a record fundraising day).”
Senior campaign officials, who spent much of Tuesday morning fielding calls from grassroots volunteers and checking in with state legislators and local GOP leaders to ensure Walker wasn’t losing support, planned to conduct a frank conversation about the abortion allegation with their boss on Tuesday, said a person close to the Walker campaign. The identity of the woman making the claim was withheld by the Daily Beast, which first reported the allegation against Walker. CNN has not independently confirmed the allegation.
“Once we have more of the facts, we can go about our jobs and go win this thing,” said the person close to the Walker campaign.
Walker has been able to weather one controversy after another, staying neck-and-neck with Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in one of the most hotly contested Senate races this cycle. But with five weeks before Election Day, the Daily Beast report prompted Walker’s son, Christian, to attack Walker as a liar and left conservatives wondering whether his alleged hypocrisy would sink his Senate campaign.
“We’re going to need a few days to assess how this turns out,” said one senior GOP strategist who asked not to be named.
After initially agreeing to divulge to CNN where he was campaigning this week, his aides declined to answer questions or disclose anything about his schedule.
But CNN obtained a copy of an invite to a Tuesday event sponsored by “Prayer Warriors for Herschel” at a Baptist church in Atlanta suburbs, where Walker refused to be interviewed by the media. CNN was not allowed to cover the event or stay in the parking lot.
Conservative activist Ralph Reed told reporters outside the event that the article is “unlikely to resonate with voters in Georgia. It’s based on an anonymous allegation that is 13 years old.” He went on to pivot to an attack on Warnock’s record and the senator’s votes with President Joe Biden.
Asked if Walker could address these matters himself, Reed told CNN: “This is a closed event. It’s a prayer event with faith leaders.”
Walker called the claim “a flat-out lie” and threatened on Tuesday morning to sue the Daily Beast. The Daily Beast said it corroborated the allegations with a receipt from the abortion clinic, a bank deposit receipt and a “get well” card from Walker, and provided by the woman, as well as an interview with a “close friend” of the woman.
“I deny this in the strongest possible terms,” Walker said in a statement.
Christian Walker, one of his sons, decried his father on Twitter following the report, saying Herschel Walker is not a “family man,” and was lying to the public.
Herschel Walker replied on Twitter, “I LOVE my son, no matter what.” Christian Walker, a conservative social media influencer, then tweeted that his father “betrayed” their family.
Asked to respond to Christian Walker, Reed said, “I gave my statement.”
But with the battle for control of the Senate on a knife’s edge, Republicans are signaling they’re not backing away from Walker, who could put them back in the majority with a victory in the battleground state.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republican campaign arm, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, reiterated their commitment to electing Walker. NRSC Chairman Rick Scott, a Florida senator, was scheduled to privately speak with Walker by phone Tuesday morning, according to a person familiar with the matter, and NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline publicly pushed back after the report.
“Democrats are losing in Georgia and are on the verge of losing the majority, so they and their media allies are doing what they always do – attack Republicans with innuendo and lies,” Hartline said.
“We are full speed ahead in Georgia. This election is about the future of the country – Herschel Walker will make things better, Raphael Warnock is making it worse,” added SLF president Steven Law in a statement. “Anything else is a distraction.”
Trump also came to Walker’s defense, saying in a statement Tuesday that he had “properly denied the charges against him, and I have no doubt he is correct.”
Trump, who claimed that Walker was being “slandered and maligned,” was pleased to see SLF and NRSC stand by Walker, who he hand-picked for the Senate contest, said an adviser to the former President. Sources close to the former President, however, said that Trump’s team is bracing for further allegations against Walker to emerge before Election Day and currently weighing whether Trump should return to Georgia to campaign for Walker.
“The President has been to Georgia twice in the past year and the state was in a good spot until yesterday — so now we have to see how the ground shifts,” said a second Trump adviser.
Sources said the decision over whether Trump returns to the state likely won’t come until after an October 14 debate between Walker and Warnock in Savannah.
The Daily Beast report takes on heightened significance after a conservative majority on the Supreme Court stripped away the constitutional right to an abortion, voting this summer to overturn the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade. In May, Walker said there are “no exceptions in my mind” that should be made for an abortion. And in September, he announced his support for a proposed national ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Democrats have tried to rally the public to vote for them to protect abortion rights. Senate Majority PAC’s affiliated group, Georgia Honor, will launch a TV ad on Wednesday “highlighting how Herschel Walker supports a complete ban on abortion without any exceptions,” according to a spokesperson.
At an event with Jewish activists on Monday night outside of Atlanta, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, got a standing ovation in describing his position.
“I’m a man of faith and as a man of faith, I have a profound reverence for life, and I have a deep and abiding respect for choice,” said Warnock. “I believe that a patient’s room is too small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor, and the United States government. That’s just too many people in the room. Too many people in the room.”
Before the event, Susan Segal, a Georgia resident, said she would support Warnock, calling “women’s rights” and abortion “a driving issue” for her.
“I think it’s very much a story that we’re being asked to go back to 1940. And I think that’s a very frightening direction to go,” Segal said.
Some Georgia Democrats are staying silent on the latest Walker allegation; the state party said they would not be commenting on the Daily Beast article. One Democratic organizer in the state is skeptical of the long-term impact of the revelations.
“We saw in 2016, Donald Trump being vulgar and bragging about sexually abusing women. And he still became the President of the United States,” said Hillary Holley, Executive Director of the Care in Action PAC, who previously worked for the Stacey Abrams campaign in 2018.
After Trump urged him to run, Walker, a former running back star at the University of Georgia and NFL, earned the support of Republican party leaders like McConnell, who was privately reluctant to back Walker at first and searched for other candidates.
Public polls between Walker and Warnock now show the race to be extremely close, as the midterm political environment for Democrats across the country remains poor due to President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, inflation and crime.
So far, Walker has been able to withstand a series of stories about his character, business practices and personal life, including the alleged violent threats he’s made to a number of women, including his ex-wife. Walker has said he has dissociative identity disorder, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder, and has sought to advise people with mental health problems.
Warnock and allied outside groups have been hammering Walker on the airwaves for weeks, highlighting the allegations of domestic abuse in multi-millions dollar advertising campaigns.
Asked if he had seen ads going after Walker’s past, Greg Baker, a Georgia resident who plans to vote for Warnock, said, “How could you not?”
Warnock defended his campaign’s focus on the issue despite Walker acknowledging his past struggle with mental health.
“I think that the people of Georgia have a stark choice to make about who they think is ready to represent them in the United States Senate,” Warnock told CNN.
Last week, asked about Walker’s alleged violent comments toward women, Scott told CNN, “Herschel has been honest about his past, and he’s been honest about how he got help and he’s better.” Scott said voters would be focused on the rising costs of consumer goods, the US-Mexico border, the fallout from the US evacuation from Afghanistan and critical race theory.
David Gould, a Georgia resident, told CNN he would vote for Walker because of “economic issues,” including the lack of “accountability” over federal government spending, taxes, immigration and defense.
“I don’t agree with Warnock’s philosophy,” Gould said. “I don’t agree with the votes he’s taken since he’s been in office.”
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CNN’s Kristen Holmes, Eva McKend, Morgan Rimmer and Michael Warren contributed to this report.