Georgia Senate Race Could Hinge on Debate in Campaign’s Final Days
A good or a particularly bad debate performance could be the edge that either candidate needs to clinch victory in November.
After weeks of taunts from Senator Warnock’s campaign calling on Republican Herschel Walker to “quit the games” and agree to a debate, Mr. Walker said he would take the stage at Savannah, Georgia, on October 14.
Mr. Walker, however, stipulated that the debate topics need to be established ahead of time, a demand that has already made its way into attack ads against him.
While the terms of the debate have been panned by Georgia Democrats, it has also cast Mr. Walker’s messaging into the spotlight. For much of the campaign, the former football great has focused on criticizing Mr. Warnock and the work he has done in his two years in the Senate.
In a video released Wednesday, Mr. Walker did more of the same, saying, “Now you get a chance to tell us why you voted for Joe Biden 96 percent of the time. God bless.”
The debate, in the opinion of a political scientist at the University of Georgia, Charles Bullock, plays into Mr. Warnock’s hand.
The Democrat has the advantage of incumbency and experience in discussing the issues, according to Mr. Bullock, and the debate gives him a chance to talk to voters about his work in the Senate, something an average voter probably doesn’t know that much about.
Mr. Warnock’s campaign is playing up his Capitol Hill role in what has been an unusually busy two years for Senate Democrats, and the debate will give Mr. Warnock a high-profile opportunity to get that message out.
Three debates are planned, though Mr. Walker has so far refused to commit to the other two. Mr. Warnock’s campaign agreed to all three, and he will appear at the later two events with an empty lectern if Mr. Walker fails to show up.
Mr. Walker’s refusal to appear at the second and third debates signals that his campaign might understand that they could be risky, possibly shaking up the election in the final weeks.
Mr. Warnock’s campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, signaled that his team is eager to put Mr. Walker on the spot. He said Tuesday that he hopes Mr. Walker will “get on a debate stage at least one other time in either Macon or Atlanta and explain his positions to them.”
He added: “If Herschel Walker can’t do that, he isn’t ready for the job of U.S. senator.”
Mr. Walker is seen by many as gaffe-prone because of questionable comments ranging from claims of once being an FBI agent to more recent remarks about inflation affecting women more than men because “they gotta buy the groceries.”
“They don’t want him to ad lib,” Mr. Bullock said. “They’ll probably prepare him with three issues and have him redirect any question to those.”
From Mr. Walker’s campaign messaging, it’s clear that he will be aiming to talk about inflation and crime as much as possible, though he has been vocal about energy independence and the border as well.
“Name calling doesn’t bother me,” Mr. Walker said at a campaign event with a former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley. “What bothers me is the crime I see in Atlanta. What bothers me is when families can’t afford food.”
These are clear weak points for Democrats, with inflation remaining stubbornly high; the most recent consumer price index reported that prices increased at an annualized rate of 8.3 percent in August.
Crime, too, has proved to be a major issue for Georgians, and those in Atlanta in particular. Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat, won election last year in no small part because of promises to end the “crime wave,” as he often called it.
Most recently, crime made headlines in the state because Atlanta surpassed Chicago’s per capita rate of some serious violent offenses, including murder and aggrevated assault, according to data provided by both police departments.
It will be up to voters to decide whether Mr. Warnock or Mr. Walker’s slate of issues are more potent, and the stakes are high. A good or a particularly bad debate performance could be the edge that either candidate needs to clinch victory in November.
Polls routinely show one or the other candidate in the lead, signaling a very close race. In Mr. Warnock’s first election bid, he defeated Senator Loeffler by 2 points.
As the Sun has reported, Georgia is among Republicans’ best chances to flip a Democratic seat in the Senate in a year when they need two pickups to take control of the Senate.
Neither campaign responded to requests for comment.
Mr. Payne is a political reporter at The New York Sun. He covers a broad range of topics focusing on New York State and New York City.