Republican Glenn Youngkin won in Virginia primarily by positioning himself as a solid parental advocate, a model that many GOP strategists are eager to replicate for the midterm elections. That might not be as easy as they think.
For that template to work, the Republican party needs candidates who live up to the image of kindhearted, family-minded people. But while Youngkin was the most visible Republican in the 2021 off-year cycle, 2022 will bring a bevy of candidates to the fore. And some of the highest-profile GOP primary candidates for the 2022 races have a history of allegations of violence against women.
Herschel Walker, Eric Greitens, and Sean Parnell are all considered serious contenders to win the Republican nominations for Senate seats in, respectively, Georgia, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. Each of them has been accused of aggressively threatening and violating women in their lives.
If they win their party’s nominations, it may complicate life for the aspiring Youngkins of 2022.
As The Bulwark’s Tim Miller flagged earlier this year, Walker wrote a book in 2008 in which he talked openly about his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. Walker said the disorder led him to block out memories and engage in dangerous behavior, such as playing Russian Roulette by himself with a loaded gun.
But he didn’t put a gun against only his own head.
His ex-wife Cindy Grossman said in a 2008 interview, “we were talking and the next thing I knew he just kind of raged and he got a gun and put it to my temple.” ABC News relayed that “at one point during their marriage, her husband pointed a pistol at her head and said, ‘I’m going to blow your f’ing brains out.’ She filed for divorce in 2001, citing ‘physically abusive and extremely threatening behavior.’”
Walker says that he changed in February 2001, when he contemplated murdering a man who was late delivering a car he had ordered, and that this incident gave him a moment of clarity that spurred him to seek professional help. But police records suggest that this change may not have been a clean break from violence. The Associated Press obtained filings from 2005, showing that Grossman received a protective order against Walker that December. The AP reported:
Grossman told the court she got calls during that period from her sister and father, both of whom had been contacted by Walker. He told family members that he would kill her and her new boyfriend, according to Maria Tsettos, Cindy Grossman’s sister.
In an affidavit, Tsettos claimed Walker once called looking for his ex-wife while she was out with her boyfriend. Tsettos took the call and said Walker became “very threatening” when told of Grossman’s whereabouts. In Tsettos’ recollection, Walker “stated unequivocally that he was going to shoot my sister Cindy and her boyfriend in the head.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August that another woman Walker was romantically involved with went to the police in 2012. According to the newspaper, Myka Dean “told police in 2012 that when she tried to end what she said was a long romantic relationship with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker he threatened to ‘blow her head off’ and then kill himself.”
Dean died in 2019. Walker’s campaign denies what it described as her “false claims.”
None of these incidents have been dealbreakers for Walker’s candidacy, which is a telling bar of behavior for what the supposedly post-Trump Republican party is willing to accept from candidates.
Trump endorsed Walker in September. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed him in October. All of the other Republicans of consequence appear to be falling in line quickly, long before the actual primary vote.
South Dakota’s Republican Sen. John Thune described Walker as “a fighter, a uniter, and a proven winner with the ability to bring Republicans together to win in November.”
The Huffington Post asked North Dakota’s Republican Senator Kevin Cramer about Walker’s past. “Americans are pretty forgiving,” Cramer said. “I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker. I actually think he’s quite a good candidate.”
Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who has shared her story of surviving abuse from men, similarly brushed off concerns about Walker. She said he “had some baggage” but had “addressed it.” She told Huffington Post, “Their constituencies will decide if they’re a worthy candidate and then move forward. We’ll take it up after we get through those primaries.”
What do you think the odds are that Ernst will oppose Walker after he clinches the GOP primary nomination?
It may be the case that after being conditioned to rationalize Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” video and defending Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing, Republicans no longer flinch over allegations of violence against women.
How else to explain why Eric Greitens—who resigned as the governor of Missouri after a committee of the state’s House of Representatives published a bipartisan report with an allegation that he took nude photos of his hairstylist while sexually assaulting her in his basement—is now a credible candidate for senator in Missouri? He has styled himself as a “MAGA Warrior” and while he has yet to get Trump’s endorsement, he’s working for it. Politico notes:
Greitens has also brought Trump World luminaries like Rudy Giuliani and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to campaign for him in Missouri. He signed on numerous Trump associates to assist his bid, among them his national campaign chair Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., and Tony Fabrizio, a Trump pollster. Former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon regularly invites Greitens to appear on his “War Room” podcast.
And no one seems uncomfortable with the fact that another Trump-endorsed Senate candidate, Sean Parnell, is being accused of assault by his estranged wife. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this week:
In tearful testimony, Laurie Snell told a family court judge that her husband once called her a “whore” and a “piece of s—” while pinning her down. On another occasion, she said, Parnell slapped one child hard enough to leave fingerprint-shaped welts through the back of the child’s T-shirt. And she said he once got so angry he punched a closet door with such force it swung into a child’s face and left a bruise. She said Parnell told his child: “That was your fault.”
She also testified that after a Thanksgiving trip in 2008, he briefly forced her out of their vehicle alongside a highway after raging at her, telling her to “go get an abortion.”
Trump has also endorsed Max Miller, one of his White House advisers and a campaign aide, for a House seat in Ohio, even though Trump’s own former press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, told Trump directly that Miller had assaulted her.
Grisham said, “the president and the first lady seemed totally unfazed about whether there was an abuser—another abuser—in their workplace. There was no follow-up from either of them to see if I needed help or protection. There was no investigation ordered. No effort to get to the bottom of this.”
What’s surprising is that this came as a surprise to Grisham. It should have been clear that this would be the Trump response ever since the day “grab ’em by the pussy” entered the vernacular. Some people take longer to learn.
Grisham would go on to write of Trump: “Dealing with abuse claims is not in his interest, but having someone in office who will be a rubber stamp for his agenda is.”
Swap the word “his” for “the Republican party” in here and you’re on to something: Dealing with abuse claims is not in the Republican party’s interest, but having someone in office who will be a rubber stamp for their agenda most definitely is.
There are only two things that might change the party’s mind on this mode of operation: wins and losses.
Whatever you think about Glenn Youngkin’s pandering to the MAGA crowd, he was clearly on to something by championing parental advocacy. Turns out family values are politically powerful and maybe something a lot of voters are yearning for after the crude Trump years. The proof is in the ballot box.
Could Walker, Greitens, Parnell, and Miller be similarly successful? Perhaps. They are all running in states much more favorable to Republicans than Virginia. It’s hard to imagine “Parents for Greitens” signs popping up at, say, Greitens rallies in Missouri, though.
What’s more likely to happen? That these candidates nationalize Youngkin’s kind of messaging or that the Democrats nationalize their history of abuse? If Abigail Spanberger has to answer for the Squad, then there’s no reason Republican candidates in places such as Wisconsin and North Carolina won’t have to answer for these alleged abusers. All of this depends on the competing campaigns.
Youngkin has given the Republican party a playbook for 2022. The players the GOP is choosing to field, however, aren’t well situated to execute it.