Under a massive tent in Gary Black’s backyard in northeast Georgia, one Republican figure after another stepped away from their chicken dinners, picked up a microphone and pledged their loyalty to the U.S. Senate candidate.
When Black’s turn came up, he gave a fiery speech that blistered U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat he hopes to unseat next year. Not once did he mention Herschel Walker, the former football star who entered the race last month and became the instant Republican front-runner.
But the message from Black, a three-term agriculture commissioner, was clear to the hundreds of friends and donors arrayed along rows of tightly packed folding chairs: He’s a force to be reckoned with, too.
The public display of support is just one way Black and the other Republican contenders are trying to contrast their campaigns with Walker, whose national name recognition and recent endorsement from former President Donald Trump make him the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nod.
They hope to seize on his vulnerabilities in ways both subtle and sharp, emphasizing their deep roots in Georgia, public service or connection with rank-and-file voters. And they hope Walker’s early focus on football, fundraisers and Fox News — at the expense of campaigning at the grassroots level — alienates core conservatives.
Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL, has increasingly highlighted his combat experience in Afghanistan after the Taliban steamrolled the U.S.-backed national government. He said the growing humanitarian crisis is a reminder “why we need leaders with national security experience leading this country.”
“As Georgians weigh their options, I believe they’ll see that I’m the only candidate in this race who will make sure America remains the world’s top superpower,” he said.
And Kelvin King, a construction executive, recently wrapped up an “uncancel America” tour across Georgia that emphasized his accessibility to voters on the campaign trail.
“Other candidates can talk about being accessible, but talk is cheap. I’ve traveled to all 159 counties and spoke directly with the voters about their concerns,” King said.
Credit: Nathan Posner for The AJC
Credit: Nathan Posner for The AJC
A decisive primary
The three face long odds, though Walker as a candidate presents many unknowns. They include how he’ll address his past struggles with mental illness, where he stands on policies and how he handles damaging reports about his past violent behavior.
Among them are allegations from two women — Walker’s ex-wife and a former girlfriend — who told police he threatened to shoot them in the head. Walker has denied both accusations.
Since entering the race last month with a splash, Walker’s campaign has operated beneath the radar. His first event was a closed-door fundraiser that attracted veteran operative Ralph Reed. He’s said little on social media or in TV interviews about his policies. His campaign declined to comment on a U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion that each of his GOP rivals praised.
And he skipped a major GOP gathering in Middle Georgia, an annual fish fry that attracted Gov. Brian Kemp and all three of Walker’s U.S. Senate rivals. The attendees buzzed with chatter about how the uncertainties around Walker’s candidacy change the race.
“I don’t know a lot about him,” said Julie Woods Hill, an Alpharetta activist. “There’s a lot of uncertainty still. Obviously, he’s not here and I just don’t know where he stands on the issues.”
Short of a collapse of Walker’s campaign, the best shot for his rivals is to muster enough support to deprive him of the majority vote he needs to win the nomination outright. That would force Walker into a head-to-head runoff against another top finisher that could reset the playing field.
“Trump has his man, and we have a potential battle for the soul of the Republican Party in Georgia,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Georgia political strategist.
“There are those who are ready to move on from Trump and blame him for losing the Senate and those who want nothing more than his return,” Hicks said. “The primary will determine the Georgia GOP’s long-term direction.”
A ‘safe position’
No candidate has taken to the offensive quite like Black, whose campaign is racing to establish him as the most serious rival to Walker. He was the first to swipe at Walker for living in Texas for decades, and Black’s campaign is stepping up the attacks.
“Team Herschel is running a Biden-in-the-basement strategy, which means they think Houston — or Dallas in this instance — has a problem,” said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Black.
“That’s a really bad sign when control of the Senate and America’s future is on the line,” McLagan said. “This isn’t signing autographs. It’s our kids’ future.”
In a show of force last week, Black hosted key Republicans at his Commerce farm. Former Gov. Nathan Deal sang Black’s praises, U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde dialed in from Washington to offer his support and Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald told Georgia Bulldog fans it was OK to spurn Walker.
“I bleed Georgia football red,” McDonald said, “but I’m for Black all the way.”
But the most surprising endorsement came from former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a die-hard Trump supporter who came in third place in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
“We need people who have the integrity Gary Black has,” said Collins, who now hosts a radio show in Gainesville. “I don’t care who else is running — I’m supporting Gary Black.”
Veteran Republicans know not to underestimate the political clout of North Georgia. Deal eked out a GOP runoff win in the 2010 race for governor thanks to exceptional turnout in his native Hall County. Kemp relied on an explosion of support from the region to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018.
Taking the makeshift stage, Black joked that he entered the race after taking out his anger on TV coverage of President Joe Biden’s “dramatic left turn.”
“I’ve had folks ask me time and time again, ‘You’re leaving something that is so safe. Why are you leaving a safe position? This is one we didn’t have to worry about,’ ” he said. “But I will not stand in safety when our country is in jeopardy.”
Raphael Warnock: The Democrat is seeking election to a full six-year term in 2022 after winning a special election runoff in January to fill the seat retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson had held. Warnock, who is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, is the state’s first Black U.S. senator.
Gary Black: The three-term Republican agriculture commissioner entered the race in June and has highlighted his career in public service and his ties to Georgia’s rural community. He’s picked up support from GOP establishment figures, including former Gov. Nathan Deal.
Kelvin King: An owner of a metro Atlanta construction company, King became the first Republican to enter the race when he announced in April. King, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was also one of Trump’s most prominent Black supporters in 2020.
Latham Saddler: The Republican, a former University of Georgia student body president, taught himself Farsi after his graduation and served as a Navy SEAL over an eight-year military career. He later was a White House fellow in the Trump administration and a banking executive.
Herschel Walker: The former University of Georgia football star was encouraged to run as a Republican by his longtime friend former President Donald Trump. He recently moved back to Georgia, registering to vote in the state on Aug. 17, after residing for years in Texas.