Herschel Walker won’t commit to GOP debates, while Kemp ups pressure on Perdue

Herschel Walker speaks to journalists after filling out his paperwork to qualify to run for the U.S. Senate at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, Mar. 7, 2022. Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Herschel Walker speaks to journalists after filling out his paperwork to qualify to run for the U.S. Senate at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, Mar. 7, 2022. Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker indicated he won’t debate his GOP rivals. Gov. Brian Kemp chastised David Perdue, his main primary challenger, for not yet committing to a series of showdowns ahead of their May 24 matchup.

While Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have avoided serious Democratic opposition, the intense GOP competition has created a divide among top candidates over whether to take part in debates.

The governor in February said he’d participate in four statewide televised debates, but Perdue has not accepted the challenge. The issue is touchy for Perdue, who was criticized for refusing to debate Democrat Jon Ossoff last year in the sole Senate runoff showdown.

Kemp’s campaign Tuesday said Perdue’s reluctance is proof he is “failing to gain traction with conservatives across Georgia.”

“Georgia Republicans need a proven winner who will make sure Stacey Abrams’ road to the White House ends in Georgia - not a failed politician who was too scared to debate Jon Ossoff,” said Kemp spokesman Cody Hall.

Combined ShapeCaption
Brian Kemp and David Perdue

Credit: AJC

Brian Kemp and David Perdue

Credit: AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Brian Kemp and David Perdue

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

The Perdue campaign said it will participate in at least one debate.

“Details are being worked out with debate hosts and the full schedule will be announced soon,” said campaign spokeswoman Jenni Sweat.

“Perdue is proud to be the only Trump endorsed candidate in this race and welcomes the opportunity to highlight a bold conservative vision to fight for Georgia.”

Walker, a former football great, faces a different scenario. Far ahead of his Republican rivals in polls and fundraising, Walker has until recently attended mostly tightly controlled events with friendly audiences.

But he’s made a string of gaffes even with conservative interviewers, including falsely labeling John Lewis as a senator who would have opposed a voting rights expansion named in his honor, and claiming it was “totally unfair” to ask whether he supported a bipartisan infrastructure measure signed into law months ago.

Facing opponents in the single-digits in recent polls, Walker’s campaign wants to shelter him from a potentially damaging encounter with Republican adversaries who have ratcheted up their attacks in recent weeks.

“I’m thinking about debating Raphael Warnock, because that’s who I need to be debating right now,” Walker said after qualifying on Monday. “I’m going to debate Raphael Warnock, because I’m going to win this primary and I’m going to the general.”

That brought howls from some supporters who worried that Walker needed the experience to sharpen his oratory skills before going head-to-head with Warnock, a charismatic pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Walker’s top rival took his criticism a step further. In an interview, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the ex-football standout is taking cues from consultants who don’t want him to rattle off more “bizarre” remarks in an unforgiving spotlight.

“That’s why he’s not coming to debates. That’s why he won’t return your phone call. I’m just simply asking: What is he dodging? Are you afraid of me? Please,” Black said. “I’m not running on celebrity. Because celebrity status won’t win.”