It’s a standard political ploy, straight out of a challenger’s playbook: demand a series of debates the moment the primaries are over. Only in Georgia, it was incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock who issued the call Thursday for three televised debates, as soon as his fall Senate election match-up with Herschel Walker was set.
Warnock’s move made sense in light of a head-scratching moment the day before. In response to a question about gun control legislation, Walker offered a rambling answer so nonsensical that it underscored longstanding concerns about whether he is ready for the rigors of a punishing, high-stakes Senate campaign.
If his runaway primary victory offered a glimpse at his promise as a Senate candidate, then Walker’s answer on guns was a fresh reminder of his risks as GOP nominee in one of the Senate’s most pivotal races.
“They [the Warnock campaign] are signaling what they think is their pathway to victory. They are telegraphing their strategy: to try to get Herschel Walker into unscripted moments where he’s got to act on his feet,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant in Georgia. “I think what stands out to me is the timing of it and telegraphing the strategy of what they think their strengths are, and what they think Herschel Walker’s weakness is.”
Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner accustomed to the breezy fame of an athlete-celebrity, has never run for public office before. But his personal and business history has been the subject of unflattering media coverage, leading to harsh Democratic criticism and private concerns among Republicans about his ability to withstand scrutiny in the crucible of one of the most competitive races in the country.
In the primary, Walker sat for interviews with conservative press outlets and sports podcasters. But political journalists who staked out his campaign events — there were more than 100 across the state — rarely got the opportunity to question him.
When Walker did respond to spontaneous questions, he had a tendency to stumble.
In January, when asked how he would have voted on the bipartisan infrastructure bill — a standard question for a candidate running for Senate — he said the question was “totally unfair” because he didn’t know the facts of the bill. At a church event in March, Walker questioned evolution, asking if humans evolved from apes, then “why are there still apes? Think about it.”
None of it, however, seemed quite as awkward as his post-election victory lap. The primary took place on the same day as the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and after his victory speech, Walker was asked if he supported new gun laws in the wake of the tragedy. “What I like to do is see it and everything and stuff,” he told CNN.
The following day, he sat for a cable news hit with Fox News that prompted Warnock’s calls for debate. Walker again tripped on his own words when asked for his policy views on gun restrictions.
“Well, you know, it’s always been an issue, because as I said earlier on, they wanna score political points … People see that it’s a person wielding that weapon, you know, Cain killed Abel,” Walker said. “And that’s the problem that we have. And I said, what we need to do is look into how we can stop those things.
“You talk about doing a disinformation,” he continued, “what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women, that’s looking at their social media? What about doing that, looking into things like that, and we can stop that that way?”
His meandering answers breathed new life into criticism he faced from his Republican primary opponents, who accused him of hiding from them and being afraid to debate. As the clear front-runner in that contest, Walker refused to attend debates, dismissing his opponents for not working hard enough and trailing in the polls.
At one debate, attended by his five Republican rivals, one of his foes called him out for his debate-dodging.
“I think a simple question for Herschel Walker is, what do you think the United States Senate does?” said former Navy SEAL officer Latham Saddler. “It’s the deliberative body of Congress. It’s what you do as a United States senator, you get up there and you debate ideas…. And Herschel Walker can’t get up here.”
Democrats are eager to see Walker on a stage with Warnock, a minister and polished speaker with two debates under his belt after his successful 2020 campaign against GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
“Every report and every scandal that emerges about Herschel Walker reinforces why he has absolutely no place in the U.S, Senate. And for voters, the conclusion will be really simple. Walker is not who he says he is. He’s not for the job. And he shouldn’t be representing Georgians in the Senate. Just plain and simple,” said Dan Gottlieb, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Georgia. “So in that regard, we think this guy’s wrong for Georgia, [and] we would like to have that discussion.”
Walker’s weaknesses as a candidate aren’t a secret. And as a first-timer in a marquee race that could decide control of the Senate, he has received a crash course in campaigns, politics and government from top party leaders.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who talked with Walker for three hours at his campaign HQ, told POLITICO they talked about “everything from being a candidate to being a senator to thinking about debating Warnock and how to handle debates.”
Gingrich, now a Fox News commentator, said Walker will immediately become a national figure in the Republican Party and will help the GOP appeal to Black voters. He added that the GOP needs “aggressive competitors who like to win” and that Walker personifies it.
“I think [people] are going to be surprised by how calmly confident he is, and how impossible it is for Warnock or anyone else to intimidate him,” Gingrich said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) flew to Mar-A-Lago to talk shop with Walker. Walker has also met with Republican Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and had regular conversations with Trump.
In addition, Walker has a standing weekly check-in with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“I mean I’ve had more experience with this sort of thing than he has and it’s not all that different from other campaigns that we’ve [helped],” said McConnell in an interview with POLITICO. “He’s a quick study and very good at bridging the divisions down there that have been on full display for the last couple of years, which I think is really important going into the general.”
Walker has previously said on the campaign trail that he plans to debate Warnock in the fall. His campaign reiterated that position after the primary, but declined to address Warnock’s three-debate proposal.
“Herschel very much looks forward to debating Raphael Warnock and his lock step support for Joe Biden’s disastrous policies this fall,” Walker spokesperson Mallory Blount said in a written statement.
The early sparring over debates is already providing insights into each campaign’s approach to the general election, and a key hurdle for Walker to overcome if he is to oust Warnock.
“He doesn’t speak in beautiful syntax, by any means,” said Robinson, the GOP consultant. “But, you know, I think his voters will say what they said about Trump quite often, ‘Well, I know what he was trying to say.’”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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