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Georgia’s Walker-Warnock debate: good for TV, bad for Republicans and American politics

Georgia’s lieutenant governor and longtime Republican, Geoff Duncan, may have spoken for many fellow Georgia Republicans when he appeared on the NewsNation program I host, “On Balance,” this week.

“I’m struggling like a lot of other folks here in Georgia, hardcore conservatives like me,” Duncan said. “I want a real conservative that knows how to get up and fight for real conservative causes and knows the issues and doesn’t have to defend his past every minute of every day.”

Duncan couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t, answer if he would vote in November for Republican Herschel Walker in the state’s U.S. Senate race. And that encapsulates Walker’s problem — and, in a larger sense, the Republican Party’s problem when it comes to taking back the Senate.

Think about that: The sitting Republican lieutenant governor wouldn’t commit to voting for his party’s Senate nominee, a fact particularly problematic for Republicans in the Peach State. In 2020, Georgia’s Senate races determined control of the U.S. Senate, and it easily could do so again.

There’s a definite split in the state politically: GOP Gov. Brian Kemp is leading challenger Stacey Abrams by 5 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average; Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, is leading Walker by 3.3 points.

Friday night’s debate between the two Senate contenders will be Walker’s best chance to make his case after more than a week of withering news coverage over allegedly having paid for a girlfriend’s abortion. The hopes of Republicans around the country now rest on the 60-minute performance of the former Heisman Trophy-winning running back.

We could devote this entire space to Walker’s unorthodox responses to questions, including but not limited to musing that America’s “good air” had replaced China’s bad air and resulted in climate change, or dismissing evolution by saying that if people came from apes, then “why are there still apes, think about it.” Or this past week’s particularly confusing story about a bull impregnating three cows. For as good as he was about holding onto the football as a University of Georgia star player, his political fumbles are surprising.

In a very real way, Friday night’s debate will make for great TV while encapsulating everything that’s wrong with the American political system.

President Biden’s approval rating sits at 44 percent in Georgia, so the fact that this Senate race is even competitive demonstrates Walker’s flaws; it also gives Warnock a golden opportunity to spread the message of bipartisanship that so many Americans say they value. By definition, the most hard-core Republicans care only about the “R” next to Walker’s name, a sentiment encapsulated by firebrand talk-show host Dana Loesch when she said that “winning is a virtue”: “What I’m about to say is in no means a contradiction or a compromise of a principle. And, please keep in mind that I am concerned about one thing, and one thing only at this point. So, I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate.”

Warnock’s position of strength gives him room to tack to the center. According to news reports, he’s campaigning in deep-red parts of Georgia and “keeps his message to those groups broad, focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care and improving infrastructure. He is more likely to bring up the Republicans he has worked with in the Senate — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tommy Tuberville — than he is to mention President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris or Senator Chuck Schumer.”

Warnock voted with Mr. Biden more than 95 percent of the time and has largely stayed away from hounding Walker over the abortion accusations. The media has done that enough — but Friday night’s debate could be different.

Both men face accusations of domestic violence, although, to be fair, police cleared Warnock the one time they were called to his home. Walker has no choice but to attack, and little to lose in trying to tie Warnock to President Biden. With late-breaking abortion accusations front and center against the pro-life Walker, and new charges that Warnock’s church evicted renters from property it owns, very little (if anything) involving this race is now about policy. It will be a combination of tribalism mixed with vicious personal attacks — in other words, the worst thing for America.

Leland Vittert is a veteran journalist who joined NewsNation as an anchor/correspondent in 2021 and hosts “On Balance with Leland Vittert” weekday evenings. He has covered national and international affairs for 20 years, including the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Libya in 2011 and war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Abortion American politics Brian Kemp Dana Loesch Geoff Duncan Georgia Senate debate Georgia Senate race Herschel Walker Joe Biden Leland Vittert Raphael Warnock Stacey Abrams

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