MARIETTA, Ga. - Like many of their elected leaders, Republican voters in Georgia are willing to stomach reports that "pro-life" GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker once paid for his girlfriend to get an abortion if it means winning back the U.S. Senate next year.
"We're all sinners," Wanda Bettis, a part-time cook, told HuffPost on Wednesday as she strolled into a Walmart in the suburbs north of Atlanta, a critical battleground in the state.
"We've all done some things we're not proud of. I'm sure he's done some things he's not proud of. You can't blame him always for things he's done in the past," she added.
Walker, a former NFL star running to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), reportedly urged an ex-girlfriend to get an abortion and then reimbursed her, according to an explosive story from The Daily Beast. The anonymous woman provided documents as proof, including an image of a personal check she said he sent to repay her for the abortion, as well as a signed "get well" card.
The outlet dropped yet another hammer Wednesday night by revealing that the woman is actually the mother of one of Walker's children. The follow-up story was published after Walker denied the original report.
Although top GOP officials and anti-abortion groups have publicly rallied behind Walker, fears are growing amid Republicans that the controversy may cost the party its biggest pickup opportunity this year - and potentially even control of the Senate next year.
"Even the most staunch Republicans are rattled," Georgia GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said during an interview Wednesday on 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."
Rick Maki, a Donald Trump supporter from Alpharetta, also said he is "worried" about what else may surface in regard to Walker's past.
"I just don't think he has enough experience. I think that might be a factor," Maki, who is retired, confided to HuffPost on Wednesday. But he plans to vote for Walker in November anyway out of opposition to Democratic policies - and because Trump has said to.
Another Republican voter who identified himself only as Jimmy said he is sticking by Walker even though he considers him a "dishonest" person.
"I'm not crazy about him but he's better than the alternative," said Jimmy, who is a retired caregiver from Cumming. "Is Walker my favorite candidate? You got two choices, you pick the best of what you got."
Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker, a strong opponent of abortion, is on the defensive after reports that he paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The bombshell story about Walker smacks of hypocrisy given his firm stance against abortion and exceptions to the procedure, as well as his presentation on the campaign trail as a devout Christian family man.
It got even worse for Walker after his son Christian, a 23-year-old conservative influencer, lashed out at his father publicly in a series of posts online, appearing to confirm his mother's allegations of domestic abuse. Walker, his son wrote, was a "liar" who left him and his mother "to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence."
Republican officials have conveniently ignored Christian Walker's posts in their own responses to the controversy, accusing Democrats of orchestrating the entire thing with unidentified "smears." But some on the right have attacked the younger Walker directly.
Cynthia Berglund, a dental hygienist from Milton, said she had a "hard time believing somebody that kept receipts from that long ago," referring to the former girlfriend. She also wasn't convinced by the angry tweets and videos posted by Walker's son, suggesting Walker's ex-wife may be responsible for turning her son against his father.
"Divorces are shitty," Berglund, a registered Republican, told HuffPost at a Walmart on the outskirts of Atlanta. "A lot of times the kids take sides depending on how the parents behave. I've seen a lot of moms just poison their kids against their father. And fathers poison kids against moms. That I take with a grain of salt."
HuffPost conducted over a dozen interviews in swing counties circling the Atlanta metro area on Wednesday. This fast-growing area will help determine whether Warnock can defy history for a second time and win a full six-year term in what was once a reliable GOP stronghold. A pastor and the first Black senator from Georgia, Warnock won the special election runoff in 2021 to serve the remaining two years of the six-year term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R).
Warnock managed to win in 2021 by running up the margins in swing counties near Atlanta and outperforming in rural Republican strongholds. The incumbent senator will need to replicate that kind of performance to win in November. But this time he faces the challenge of a difficult political environment for Democrats amid high inflation and an incumbent president whose approval rating has been stuck around 40%.
The good news for Warnock is that he has led in several recent polls of the race even before Walker's abortion mess. He also holds a big fundraising advantage: His campaign reported raising over $26 million in the third quarter of the year.
Walker is now playing defense in response to the latest revelations. On Wednesday, he released a TV ad addressing his past issues with mental health.
"As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health, even wrote a book about it. And by the grace of God, I've overcome it," Walker says in the 30-second video.
That kind of pitch resonated with some Georgia Republicans.
Walter Pijanowski, a retired engineer from Marietta, told HuffPost he wasn't "crazy" about Walker but felt he was a better choice than voting for a Democrat.
"I knew he had a troubled past and at a certain point maybe he saw the light," Pijanowski said. "I know what the other guy has done and I'm not crazy about him either."
Not everyone was as forgiving.
Greg Bishop, an independent from Marietta, expressed his distaste for both candidates. He said he and his wife plan to vote for the libertarian candidate in the Senate race but to stick with incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. If more voters make the same kind of decision, Walker could face a difficult time in November.
"Walker's an idiot. Just listen to him talk," Bishop said Wednesday. "It's kind of embarrassing."
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.