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Columns Tom Baxter

Over two debates, Warnock jousts with a Republican, a Libertarian and an empty podium

Sen. Raphael Warnock stands next an empty podium that was reserved for challenger Herschel Walker. (Image provided by the Atlanta Press Club.)

By Tom Baxter

It’s funny how political logic can be turned on its ear in a couple of days.

Throughout the first part of the U.S. Senate campaign, there has been all kinds of speculation about Herschel Walker and debates. Was he going to participate in any debates with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock? Under what conditions? And how would he perform?

After two very different Senate debates — one with Walker in attendance and one in which he was represented by an empty podium — a completely different set of questions linger.

Why did Warnock relent and agree to only one debate with Walker? If he had blown off the Walker campaign’s demands, he would still have had Sunday night’s Atlanta Press Club debate as proof of his willingness to debate. Plans for the Nexstar network debate which took place Friday night would in all likelihood have fallen apart if Warnock had refused to participate. There was, in retrospect, a good reason why Walker needed a debate, and no good reason for Warnock to make that easy for him.

The Nexstar debate offered Walker a forum that didn’t get into many policy details and was loose enough to allow the Republican challenger to take a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, interrupting Warnock several times without challenge from the moderators. The only stern warning Walker received was when he pulled out his badge in violation of the ban on props, and that was actually stepping on the best moment of the night for Warnock.

The debate Sunday night didn’t draw as much attention, but it had an important function in introducing many voters to the third candidate in this race, Libertarian Chase Oliver. Not for the first time in recent Georgia history, this race is close enough to go to a runoff if none of the candidates gets a clear majority.

If you watched both debates, you know a lot more about Oliver’s opinion on a variety of issues than you do about Walker’s. Empty podiums don’t say much, so Oliver and Warnock had a lot more time to get into details Sunday night. Also, Walker got away with some absolute bafflegab in the Savannah debate, particularly in his response to a question about healthcare.

Monday night’s Atlanta Press Club debate of the gubernatorial candidates was a lively affair, and here again the Libertarian candidate was a big factor, though in this case not in a very helpful way for voters.

Shane Hazel, the Libertarian, seemed to grow increasingly agitated as the hour went on, frequently talking over Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams and rambling on until his microphone was turned off in the closing seconds of the program. Lawmakers host Donna Lowry has done a number of these debates, but she deserves special recognition for keeping this one this one on track to the end of the program.

This was an irritating distraction for Kemp, but it was a disastrous development for Abrams, who trails in the polls and needed every minute to make her case with the voters. It’s safe to say that in this race, the Libertarian isn’t going to force a runoff.

Monday was also the first day of early voting, and the first reports indicate a heavy turnout this year. Most voters have already made up their minds, but debates like these still matter. There may still be races that will be decided by voters who haven’t yet made up their minds.


Disclosure: I serve on the Atlanta Press Club debate committee, but had no direct involvement in planning for Sunday night’s debate.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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