Herschel Walker’s no-show looms large over Senate GOP debate

Herschel Walker is represented by an empty podium in this picture of the 9th District GOP Senate debate by Jonathan O’Brien of WDUN.

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Herschel Walker is represented by an empty podium in this picture of the 9th District GOP Senate debate by Jonathan O’Brien of WDUN.

Former football great Herschel Walker skipped the first major Republican U.S. Senate debate, but his absence at the event in Gainesville on Saturday helped shape the back-and-forth among the five candidates who showed up.

Each of Walker’s top rivals criticized the GOP frontrunner for skipping the event and predicted that his strategy, which involves a regimen of mostly tightly scripted events and private gatherings, would leave him vulnerable against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

And several at the 9th District GOP debate compared Walker’s approach to President Joe Biden’s “basement strategy” during the 2020 election campaign against Republican Donald Trump.

“I’m also certain that every coach that he had in the past instructed him that you’ll not play in the game if you don’t show up for practice,” said Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Walker’s best-known GOP rival. “But his coaches now have him locked in the basement of the locker room. I think it’s a shame.”

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An image of Herschel Walker’s empty podium at the 9th District GOP debate in Gainesville.

An image of Herschel Walker’s empty podium at the 9th District GOP debate in Gainesville.

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An image of Herschel Walker’s empty podium at the 9th District GOP debate in Gainesville.

Since entering the race last year with Trump’s support, Walker has ignored his rivals and bypassed many large GOP gatherings, even if it meant alienating key activists and officials. He’s also indicated he won’t participate in debates until the general election.

In this instance, Walker cited the Horatio Alger Award ceremony in Washington as a scheduling conflict. The event ended Saturday morning, hours before the evening debate.

Walker has held wide leads in public polls, including an Emerson College/The Hill poll that pegged him near 60%. His opponents contend they have an opening to force him into a runoff, noting earlier polls had Walker hovering around 80%.

“Mr. Walker not showing up and not making himself available to the people of Georgia is not serving the people of Georgia,” said Kelvin King, a contractor and military veteran. “This is an interview process and if you don’t show up for the interview process you don’t get the job.”

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Republican Kelvin King (left) to challenge Warnock in the 2022 Senate contest. Then, President Donald Trump looks on, while King joins him on stage to speak during the Black Voices for Trump Coalition Rollout on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Republican Kelvin King (left) to challenge Warnock in the 2022 Senate contest. Then, President Donald Trump looks on, while King joins him on stage to speak during the Black Voices for Trump Coalition Rollout on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Republican Kelvin King (left) to challenge Warnock in the 2022 Senate contest. Then, President Donald Trump looks on, while King joins him on stage to speak during the Black Voices for Trump Coalition Rollout on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler noted his deep roots at the University of Georgia, where Walker starred in the early 1980s.

“He was my childhood football hero. I thought he was a competitor,” said Saddler. “But he’s moved over here from Texas after several decades and he’s hiding out. He’s doing the Biden basement strategy. We saw what that got us.”

It was Black, however, who offered perhaps the most scathing attack. The agriculture commissioner brought up instances of violence against women and past policy stances that he’s long said would “disqualify” Walker in November.

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2/27/19 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp held a press conference with Agriculture commissioner Gary Black in support of relief for hurricane damage in south Georgia. The legislature was in session for the 23rd day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

2/27/19 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp held a press conference with Agriculture commissioner Gary Black in support of relief for hurricane damage in south Georgia.  The legislature was in session for the 23rd day of the 2019 General Assembly.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

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2/27/19 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp held a press conference with Agriculture commissioner Gary Black in support of relief for hurricane damage in south Georgia. The legislature was in session for the 23rd day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

“Anyone who has put their hands on a woman, who has stalked, has threatened police with shootouts does not deserve to be in the U.S. Senate,” said Black.

“Any Republican whose position would be that they support a pathway to citizenship and amnesty for people who are in this country illegally does not deserve our vote.”

Here are some other takeaways:

Each of the five candidates indicated support for repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Former state Rep. Josh Clark talked of developing “market-based, patient-centered health care.” And Jon McColumn, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, promised to allow insurers to expand into new markets to increase competition.

King and Saddler both vowed to repeal the entire law. And Black outlined a plan to create a committee of 15 physicians, along with other health professionals, to work out more localized health care solutions.

“I believe we have the brainpower in the state of Georgia to solve anything if we put our minds to it,” he said.

***

All five of the candidates raised questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, though several wouldn’t go as far as saying it was “stolen.”

The election wasn’t stolen. Three separate tallies of the roughly 5 million ballots upheld Biden’s narrow victory, court challenges by Trump allies were squashed, and bipartisan election officials have vouched for the results.

King asserted there were “problems with our election” but expressed confidence that a Republican-backed election rewrite that passed last year “goes a long way toward securing our election.”

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U.S. Senate candidate Latham Saddler

U.S. Senate candidate Latham Saddler

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U.S. Senate candidate Latham Saddler

Saddler criticized the slow election counting process in heavily Democratic DeKalb and Fulton counties — two of the state’s most populous — and advocated for “the old school way” of using paper ballots.

And Black said he wouldn’t allege the election was stolen “but I know we had a mess here in Georgia. I know we had inconsistencies. I hope those inconsistencies can be proven and if there’s laws broken, people will go to jail.”

***

The leading Walker rivals tried to strike a delicate balance when asked about the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob that sought to block Congress from formalizing Biden’s victory.

Black said it started with a “demonstration of people recognizing their free speech and concerned about their country” but that those who broke the law should be punished.

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Protesters gather on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud in an attempt to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Whether to call the event a riot or an insurrection depends on whom you ask. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Protesters gather on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud in an attempt to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Whether to call the event a riot or an insurrection depends on whom you ask.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Protesters gather on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud in an attempt to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Whether to call the event a riot or an insurrection depends on whom you ask. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

He added that some of those charged aren’t being afforded a right to a speedy trial and denounced “witch hunts in Washington” probing the case.

Saddler had a similar stance.

“You did have people vandalizing our Capitol. And that we can all agree, as patriots, we can’t stand for vandalizing our nation’s Capitol either. Now those folks deserve due process.”

In blunt remarks, King said the attack was “not OK” and that violators should be held accountable. But he said demonstrators who took part in other violent protests should also be held to account.

“I believe in the rule of law and no one gets an exception.”