OPINION: How to run for Senate when you’re not Herschel Walker

U.S. Senate candidate Kelvin King speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

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U.S. Senate candidate Kelvin King speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Kelvin King is an Air Force Academy graduate and Atlanta construction business owner who started three out of four years for the Air Force Falcons football team. In theory, he has the perfect resume at the perfect time for the Republican primary to unseat U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

The same might be said for Latham Saddler, a UGA graduate who served eight years as a Navy SEAL, including missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, before joining the National Security Council under Donald Trump.

Or Gary Black, the three-term Georgia Agriculture Commissioner whose rural roots run deep into the same ruby-red Georgia that teems with die-hard Donald Trump supporters.

But none of those military appointments, statewide elections, or traditional Republican check-list attributes have managed to compete with the sheer celebrity of Herschel Walker since he moved back to Georgia from Texas in August and announced his run for Senate, with Donald Trump’s blessing.

Even without detailing a single policy position, Walker led the GOP field before he got into the race, based on his name ID and Trump backing alone. And he quickly raised nearly $4 million to fuel his race and added another $5.4 million last quarter.

What, if anything, can the three other Republicans do in the face of the Heisman winner’s Goliath campaign?

In a word, work, Black said in an interview Tuesday. Even when the odds seem stacked against them.

The Agriculture Commissioner had just crossed paths with Walker the day before at the Faith and Freedom legislative luncheon, a Who’s Who of conservative pols and candidates.

While Black was introduced by the group’s executive director and given four minutes to speak, Walker was invited to the stage later, as Gov. Brian Kemp waited in the wings, for a one-on-one interview with Ralph Reed as a group of women crowded in the back row to capture his appearance on their cell phones.

“The different treatment is strange,” Black said. “But I will also say that I welcome it because it helps the differences become more clear.”

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A screenshot from Gary Black's U.S. Senate ad.

A screenshot from Gary Black's U.S. Senate ad.

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A screenshot from Gary Black's U.S. Senate ad.

Black is one up on Saddler, who said he’s never seen Walker on the trail. At a candidate forum in Pickens County, Black, Saddler and King appeared, but an empty chair stood in for Walker, who was a no-show.

Saddler was at the Oconee GOP’s monthly meeting Monday night, where he sat for about an hour before his turn to speak came up.

After telling the crowd about this background, he addressed “the elephant in the room, Herschel Walker.”

He assured the group that Walker was a childhood hero of his, like any Georgia Bulldog.

“But these are serious times for our country and this ain’t college athletics folks,” he said. “The celebrities are not going to bail us out. We’ve got to do the work ourselves.”

Since Walker entered the race six months ago, his campaign said he’s done 76 events and 73 interviews, including a few about football and some of which he did from his Texas home. But many of the interviews are with friendly Fox News hosts and he’s never agreed to an interview with the AJC, despite repeated requests.

Compare that to Saddler, who has attended more than 150 events. Or Black, who is on his fifth statewide campaign. Or King, who has spoken at 266 public events since he kicked off his campaign in April, including a 30-day tour that hit all 159 Georgia counties.

All three candidates answer the AJC’s interview requests consistently and grant access to their events for reporters.

“I’ve done this five times,” Black said. “And, and I know that’s what Georgians expect out of someone running for office. They want to see you in their community. They want you to come early and stay late, and they want you to answer their questions.”

King uses the word, “grind,” a lot to describe his schedule. And like the other not-Herschel candidates, he knows raising his name I.D. with voters is his heaviest lift, especially with a local football legend in the race.

“We’re just working our plan,” King said. “I think people in Georgia will see we’re the hardest working, most accessible candidate.”

That’s in contrast to worries he said he hears from grassroots activists about Walker’s candidacy.

“Some people are very concerned that he’s not putting in the work to engage with potential voters in Georgia,” he said.

King compared the events and debates and give-and-take with media during the primary to a practice field where candidates can get ready for the general election contest against Warnock. It’s practice he doesn’t see Walker doing.

“It not only does the voters a disservice, it’s doing him a disservice.”

Saddler compared Walker’s controlled campaign to Joe Biden’s “basement campaign strategy,” and said fellow Republicans had voiced their support to him quietly but didn’t want to aggravate Trump publicly.

“There’s a lot of concern about Herschel’s prospects in the general and there should be,” he said.

When Walker did appear at the Faith and Freedom event, he spoke about being raised in a “praying” house. He said he’d fight in Washington for conservative values and also reach out to Democrats “with an open hand, not a closed fist.”

He did not make any major policy announcements, but he didn’t have to for the crowd, which jockeyed for position to snap a photo of him on stage between rounds of loud applause.

But an hour north later in the day in Oconee County, Saddler was working to win over the local GOP one voter at a time.

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Senate candidate Latham Saddler addresses a crowd in Nashville, Ga. as his son Bubba wanders the room.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Senate candidate Latham Saddler addresses a crowd in Nashville, Ga. as his son Bubba wanders the room.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Senate candidate Latham Saddler addresses a crowd in Nashville, Ga. as his son Bubba wanders the room.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Chappy Hines, a former Marine and UGA football team chaplain, listened to Saddler’s speech nodding his head in agreement.

Later he showed me a picture of him and Walker saved on his phone. But it was Saddler he liked for Senate.

“I love Herschel Walker. I just don’t see Herschel in six years or 12 years being up there. I don’t know,” Hines said. But he pointed at Saddler talking to the last of the GOP stragglers as the room emptied out for the night.

“I think I know with him.”

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