Walker’s empty lectern co-stars in Senate debate with Warnock, Oliver

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock tried to make the most of Republican Herschel Walker’s absence at the Atlanta Press Club debate on Sunday by using the platform to direct withering criticism at the empty lectern representing the GOP nominee.

From the very start of the hourlong debate, Warnock pilloried Walker for rejecting the invitation, saying that “half of being a senator is showing up.” Warnock assailed Walker’s opposition to student debt relief and the federal climate and health care measure.

And he sharpened his criticism of Walker’s history of violent behavior, scoffing at the Republican’s remark that he’s been “redeemed” since he threatened his ex-wife and other women despite repeatedly refusing to discuss his past.

“It’s hard to be redeemed if you’re not willing to come clean about the basic facts of your life,” said Warnock. “This race isn’t about who’s redeemed. It’s about who’s ready.”

Walker’s no-show was no surprise. After months of hedging, the Republican accepted only one debate — a televised showdown in Savannah hosted by Nexstar that took place Friday. In that hourlong event, Walker mostly avoided bracing questions about his personal baggage.

Ahead of Sunday’s meeting, Walker’s campaign released a scathing statement that claimed Warnock failed in the first debate and accused the Democrat of wanting a friendlier “do-over” with the Atlanta Press Club.

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

And to further thumb his nose at the Atlanta media, the Republican released word before the debate that he scheduled a Monday event with a conservative national outlet: A town hall with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Warnock used the empty lectern to his advantage, redirecting many of the questions from the four panelists and Libertarian Chase Oliver into appeals to his swing voters and scathing swipes at the Republican.

“I think Herschel Walker, if he were here, should tell the people Georgia why he thinks they should pay for expensive insulin and pharmaceutical companies should be able to charge us whatever they like,” said Warnock.

‘Full stop’

He also used the scrutiny to highlight his policy stances — and push back on GOP lines of attack without Walker’s interference.

Pressed on a conservative outlet’s report that an apartment building linked to Ebenezer Baptist Church moved to evict eight residents during the pandemic, Warnock was unequivocal.

“There have been no evictions,” said the Democrat, the church’s senior pastor. “Full stop.”

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

Faced with a question about whether the race has gotten too personal, the Democrat rejected GOP attempts to draw a line between Walker’s history of violence and a March 2020 dispute between Warnock and his ex-wife.

“I have never been violent to anybody for any reason. I have spent my entire life as a citizen, as a pastor of Dr. King’s church steeped in the philosophy of nonviolence,” he said. “My opponent, on the other hand, has a well-documented history of violence and he hasn’t come clean about it.”

And asked about a favorite Walker attack line that Warnock votes too often with President Joe Biden, the Democrat delivered the sort of monologue that will be replayed to his supporters on social media.

“I’m not going to be distracted about what Herschel Walker says about me. He doesn’t tell the truth about himself. He says he graduated from college. He didn’t. He said he was valedictorian of his class. He wasn’t. He said he started a business that doesn’t even exist.”

Warnock continued: “And yet when I said, ‘you pretended to be a police officer,’ he presented a badge — as if that were proof that he really is a police officer.

“And now he wants us to think that he’s a senator. I think the people of Georgia are wise and discerning. And they know that at the end of the day, I know who I work for. I work for them.”

Libertarian showcase

The Sunday debate was an important showcase for Oliver, a Libertarian who could drive the race into a runoff. Georgia law requires the victor to receive a majority of the vote, and in a tight race even slight support for Oliver could kick the race into overtime.

The latest Georgia News Collaborative poll shows Oliver with about 4% of the vote, roughly double the proportion that the third-party candidate in the governor’s race is pulling.

One factor driving that trend is the small but statistically significant number of GOP voters who indicate they’re backing both Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Oliver. In interviews, some of these voters say they’re choosing the Libertarian as a protest vote over concerns with Walker.

ExploreGov. Kemp, Stacey Abrams debate Monday

Oliver’s platform includes calls to end qualified immunity for federal police officers and a pledge to limit U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. As the first openly gay Senate candidate in Georgia, he also wants to adopt new federal civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community.

“I’m not interested in partisan games, because they won’t solve the issues that matter to Georgia voters, like rising costs of groceries and rent,” Oliver said. “I want to take power out of the hands of government and return it to each and every one of you, because that’s where it resides.”

Watch the debate replay:

Coverage of other debates Sunday:

» Bishop defends record, addresses ethics probe in debate with West

» Health care, abortion among hot topics at 6th Congressional District debate

» Greene, Flowers spar over who best reflects 14th District voters

» Georgia Decides: 2022 Voter Guide