“I will fight with every fiber of my life to make sure our young people, our unborn, are treated like human beings,” said Kelvin King, the owner of a construction firm and military veteran.
Their staunch anti-abortion stances struck a sharp contrast with Warnock, who described himself Tuesday as a “pro-choice pastor” who would fight to safeguard access to abortions.
The primacy of the abortion issue — one of the first and most frequent issues summoned by the debate’s panelists — illustrated the growing importance of the issue since the leak of the draft opinion that could overturn the 1973 landmark ruling.
Missing from the stage was GOP front-runner Herschel Walker, a former football star who was instead hosting a fundraiser in east Georgia while his rivals mocked him as a coward for skipping the event. He also was a no-show at a previous debate, and his campaign taunted critics for “obsessing” over his absence.
Though Walker was out of sight — represented as an empty podium at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio — he was never out of mind from the contenders competing for the GOP nod.
His rivals condemned him for refusing to attend the showdown as they insisted the May 24 primary should be an open competition and not a coronation.
Many of the candidates seemed almost apologetic about running against the former football star, and several described him as a hero of their childhood who was unprepared for a November race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
The bluntest remark came from Walker’s best-known Republican rival.
“Herschel Walker will not win in November,” said Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who, like the other contenders, framed himself as the best alternative to Walker. Later, Black posed a question to an invisible Walker, waiting for a moment in vain for an answer.
“Herschel Walker is ignoring the Georgia voters and ignoring us,” Black said, adding: “If that’s what he does now, that’s what he’ll do in the future.”
The ‘easy part’
With celebrity status and support from former President Donald Trump, Walker and his aides decided before he entered the race that he would ignore the other GOP candidates and focus exclusively on a general election matchup against Warnock.
He’s also bypassed many conventional campaign gatherings and, until recently, held a limited schedule of public events. Some of his appearances have produced awkward gaffes and campaign blunders.
So far, that strategy of limited appearances has been validated by Walker’s massive leads in public polls, including an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey released last week that pegged him with two-thirds of the vote among likely GOP voters.
His rivals promised it would come back to haunt him. Former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler called Walker’s absence “pathetic.” At one point, addressing the empty podium, he asked, “What do you think the United States Senate does?”
Credit: Staff Writer
Credit: Staff Writer
“This should be the easy part,” Saddler said. “If he can’t do this, he certainly cannot beat Raphael Warnock in November.”
King offered the same assessment: “He hasn’t been vetted, and frankly he’s not prepared to stand up against Raphael Warnock.”
The two other candidates, former state Rep. Josh Clark and military veteran Jon McColumn, also tried to get a slice of the GOP vote. Together, the five fielded questions about criminal justice measures, gun-related policies and rural jobs.
Some of the sharpest moments, however, revolved around the draft of a ruling suggesting that the Supreme Court is poised to strike down Roe, which established a constitutional right to abortion.
Though the opinion is not yet finalized, and could be changed in ways small and large, it has already reverberated on Georgia’s campaign trail. Democrats promise the leaked ruling will give them a long-sought unifying message ahead of the midterms.
Saddler predicted it would also energize Republican voters, saying he was “encouraged by this potential ruling but concerned by the leak.” He added that he feared the disclosure of the bench’s inner workings would “fundamentally change the operations of our highest court.”
And all five of the contenders on the debate stage said unequivocally that they would support a national law that promoted a “total” abortion ban.
Walker, too, has taken a similar stance. He filled out a survey from the Georgia Life Alliance that supported outlawing abortion, including in instances of rape and incest, saying he’d back “legislation which protects the sanctity of human life, even if the legislation is not perfect.”
And at a campaign stop in Milledgeville on Tuesday, Walker promised to “protect the unborn with my life … because I believe from the womb to the tomb.”