While some Republicans wait on Walker, others take fight to Warnock

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

NASHVILLE, Ga. — About a dozen people cram along a few tables inside a buffet in this town of about 5,000 people to feast on fried chicken and banana pudding as they take in the message from a former big man on campus at the University of Georgia running for the U.S. Senate.

No, it’s not Herschel Walker, the football icon who is keeping many Georgia Republicans locked in a daily will-he-or-won’t-he-run saga from his home in Texas. It’s Latham Saddler, a former student body president at UGA who plunged into the race as Walker hedges.

“It’s going to require someone very different than Raphael Warnock to win this seat,” Saddler said, his 4-year-old son Bubba playing alongside him as he speaks. “In so many ways this made no sense for my family and I. The idea of jumping in was scary. But we’re fighting for security, liberty and prosperity.”

Outside of Georgia, the narrative holds that state Republicans are frozen as they wait on Walker to decide whether he will run, as former President Donald Trump has encouraged him to. And that’s true, to a degree.

But a trio of Republicans has already joined the race against Warnock, the Democratic incumbent up for a full term in 2022. They’re placing a bet that Walker won’t run — or that if he does, his untested candidacy will crumble under the weight of past controversies.

Credit: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Saddler and the other two Republicans, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and military veteran Kelvin King, aren’t taking direct aim at Walker. But they’re emphasizing what they offer that Walker can’t: a record in the armed forces or in public office, their ties to Georgia, and a willingness to engage grassroots voters on the campaign trail.

At a recent campaign stop, Black focused as much on President Joe Biden as Warnock in explaining why he’s running.

“I’ve got four broken TVs at home. What does that have to do with running? Well, I’ve thrown a brick through every TV I’ve got since January,” Black said, referring to Biden’s inauguration. “Am I going to do something about it or keep throwing bricks? I’m off the couch, folks.”

‘On my timetable’

They’re plowing ahead as Walker’s past is drawing new scrutiny.

In recent weeks, media reports have highlighted his exaggerated business dealings and violent behavior, including court documents detailing a 2005 death threat leveled by Walker against his ex-wife and her new boyfriend that swayed a Texas judge to issue a protective order.

Senior Republicans are raising concerns that Trump’s potential endorsement — he called Walker “unstoppable” and predicted he’ll join the race — has left the state GOP saddled to an unpredictable, untested nominee.

And Walker has not acted like a potential candidate, avoiding local reporters and skipping mainstay events on the Georgia Republican circuit in favor of a handful of friendly appearances on Fox News. In a recent spot on Sean Hannity’s show, he said the negative press “isn’t going to scare me.”

“I’m going to do it on my timetable,” Walker said, “and I think that’s what’s making people angry.”

He’s acting like he’s in the driver’s seat for a reason. Walker can bide his time because he’d enter the race with sky-high name recognition, a broad fundraising base and a vast following on social media.

Republican strategist Heath Garrett said Trump’s endorsement, combined with Walker’s outsider status, would make him the instant front-runner in the GOP primary and position him well for a November matchup against Warnock.

“Herschel’s diversity, unconventional approach to politics and his message of hope, hard work and the power of the free enterprise system will cause problems for the Democrats in the general,” said Garrett, who is among the GOP consultants encouraging a Walker run.

For now, though, the infighting only seems to strengthen Warnock’s position. Though he’s considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents on the ballot next year, he’s amassed a reelection war chest topping $10 million and has a unified party behind him. He recently hired a battle-tested campaign manager to prepare for next year’s race.

A ‘serious issue’

The three GOP candidates lining up against Warnock are rushing into a void.

One big GOP name after another has sidestepped a contest against Warnock, the charismatic pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. His old foe, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, won’t say whether she’s running but set off chatter in political circles when she recently met with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

And U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Pooler Republican elected to four terms in Congress, is so wary of a potential Walker run that he’s preparing to join the field only if Walker bows out.

“I’m not interested in political suicide,” Carter said. “I ain’t going to run against Herschel Walker in the state of Georgia. I was born at night. But it wasn’t last night.”

King, a construction contractor who was one of Trump’s chief Black surrogates in Georgia, doesn’t mind the uncertainty. He’s platformed his campaign around a fight against “cancel culture,” and this week he rolled out an “Uncancel America Tour” with stops in the state’s 159 counties.

At a campaign swing through Cobb County, King made a not-so-subtle opening argument playing on his in-state residency.

“I’m a Georgia boy. I was born and raised right here in Georgia, in fact I was born right here in Cobb County,” King said. “It’s very, very important to me to make sure I represent my county, my state, with dignity and integrity.”

Credit: Nathan Posner for The AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for The AJC

Black has amassed the most formidable grassroots network of all the candidates, thanks in part to his three terms in statewide office. He also picked up the endorsement of former Gov. Nathan Deal, the first high-profile Republican to choose sides.

The surprise of the race, though, has been Saddler, who has quietly put together a serious campaign. His $1.4 million fundraising haul topped the GOP field. And he quickly set up a statewide tour, drawing crowds of dozens in some midsize cities.

In Nashville, a speck of a town in Berrien County, Saddler talked about his “six-year warpath” to become a Navy SEAL and, later, his journey to a position in the Trump White House. Pressed on Walker’s potential candidacy, Saddler professed ambivalence.

“Whoever gets in this race needs to make their decision on their own. We’re not focused on that,” the 38-year-old said. “We’re focused on our mission, which is to win the seat back from Raphael Warnock next year and win over the support from Georgians.”

Some of the Republicans who sidled up to the buffet were curious; others left convinced. Taylor Williams, a Saddler supporter, said with Democrats on the rebound in Georgia, Republicans will need a younger visionary to take the party’s standard.

“I get the legend. I just don’t like prolonging celebrity politics,’ Williams said. “Leadership is a serious issue. And we need someone who can bring serious leadership.”

Political Columnist Patricia Murphy contributed to this report.