Professional athlete turned Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has accepted one invitation to debate Democratic opponent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA)—and it just so happens to be the one debate that provides the topics in advance.
That’s the single appreciable difference between four proposed debates, a subject that, according to the campaigns and event organizers, remains unresolved and confusing, despite the candidates jawing at each other for weeks.
Walker’s campaign has said they chose the forum—hosted by national news conglomerate Nexstar and its Savannah based NBC affiliate, WSAV—because it would have a live audience and the “format and the moderators are fair and would allow each candidate equal opportunity to share their message.”
But it’s apparently rare for debates in Georgia to provide the topics ahead of time. None of the three debates Warnock has previously agreed to are offering the heads-up, according to the organizers’ conversations with The Daily Beast.
Larry Silbermann, general manager of WTOC Savannah, which has already struck an agreement with the Warnock campaign for a debate in mid-October, told The Daily Beast that he’d never fielded such a request.
“In my 30-plus years of doing this, we’ve never given out the topics or have a candidate request it,” Silbermann said.
Representatives from the other two hosts—the Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism and the Atlanta Press Club—also characterized the stipulation as unusual, with APC executive director Lauri Strauss saying it was her organization’s “longstanding policy” to afford full independence to its journalist questioners, and not to reveal topics ahead of time.
Nexstar spokesperson Gary Weitman declined to hear The Daily Beast’s questions. He provided a statement acknowledging that Nexstar had pitched both candidates, but “did not publicize any details about this event, as both candidates had not yet agreed to participate.”
“One candidate unilaterally decided to publicly announce that he would participate,” the statement said, adding that Nexstar, the largest local media company in the country, “will make every effort to reach agreement with both candidates regarding their participation.”
While Nexstar may not have released any details, Georgia Public Broadcasting published the terms last week.
“Topics will be provided to the campaigns prior to the broadcast, but specific questions will not,” the term sheet says.
The terms also note that “candidates should expect some of the questions to be visually supported by graphics on the screen,” which “will help the candidate and the voter better understand the question.”
Those would seem appealing features to a campaign dogged by controversy and lies, whose staff has tried for months to manage a severely gaffe-prone candidate with “no grasp of public policy” or “knowledge of issues that matter to the people of Georgia,” as the Valdosta Daily Times put it. As The Daily Beast reported last month, Walker’s own campaign staff have shielded his troubles from Republican Party higher-ups, while mocking his intelligence behind his back.
“He screws up on Fox News where people agree with him, so the idea of him taking an adverse interview or interacting with people who don’t agree with him is a non-starter,” a Walker adviser told The Daily Beast at the time, likening a tough interview to sending Walker “into the lion’s den.”
The campaign brought on renowned debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who has counseled gaffe-prone conservative forebears like former President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But The Daily Beast has learned that O’Donnell abruptly stopped fielding questions from Georgia debate officials last week, and redirected inquiries to the campaign.
Walker, who ducked debates with Republicans ahead of the May primary, is swaggering around the state, calling Warnock “totally scared” to debate him as recently as Monday. Walker is also fond of pointing out that the Nexstar debate will be in Savannah, Warnock’s “back yard”—but that’s also where Walker staged a home base for his largest company, and where one of his sisters lives.
However, Walker just accepted the Nexstar offer last week—and only after steady barbs from Warnock, who agreed to three other debates weeks ago. Last month, the first-term Democrat released a campaign ad accusing his tough-talking opponent of “dodging” him, citing months of Walker’s boasts that he was ready to square off against the incumbent at any time.
“I told him to name the place and the time, and we can get it on,” Walker told WSB radio in June.
Warnock has since named three places and times for debates that Walker has not accepted.
Walker’s confusing statements have turned the debate disagreement into a long, twisting saga—both for the public, Georgia voters, and the campaigns and organizers. The Walker campaign attacked one of those organizers directly this week.
Silbermann, of WTOC Savannah, said that when Walker announced on Fox News last Sunday that he’d accepted a debate before a live audience in Savannah, he initially thought it was his.
“At first I thought he meant the WTOC debate, because I’d just been emailing with them,” said Silbermann, who had at the time been in touch with the campaign and O’Donnell, the debate coach.
“He reached out on Sunday with questions about the format, like to see whether [Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver] would be participating,” Silbermann recalled. Silbermann said he replied that they wouldn’t include Oliver, who was polling at 3 percent, below WTOC’s 10 percent threshold. (APC and Mercer University debates would include Oliver, but he did not qualify for the Nexstar debate, according to their term sheet.)
O’Donnell had also asked whether WTOC could provide a live audience format, Silbermann said, which, after securing Warnock’s consent, he said they could accommodate. Hours later, Walker told Fox News he had accepted a live debate in Savannah.
The next day, Silbermann asked O’Donnell if Walker had been referring to his event. But when O’Donnell replied a day or two later, he told Silbermann he was no longer fielding those questions for the campaign, Silbermann recalled, redirecting the inquiry to campaign manager Scott Paradise. Paradise also hasn’t responded, Silbermann said, adding that “opaque is a good way to describe” the campaign’s behavior.
Paradise declined to comment for this article.
Debbie Blankenship, head of the Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism, said that she has never heard from the Walker team.
“We sent emails June 13, June 23, July 7, July 14, and July 28, but haven’t had a reply,” Blankenship told the Daily Beast. She said the Warnock campaign had officially accepted the invitation on June 23 for the town hall-style debate, which would feature questions from the community, moderated by local journalists.
“We’re still hopeful to hear from the Walker campaign,” Blankenship added.
Strauss, head of the Atlanta Press Club, the state’s premier forum for candidate debates, told The Daily Beast that the Walker campaign had been responsive from the jump.
“We’ve been in touch frequently, and they’ve always been quick to respond,” Strauss said.
Strauss said the Walker campaign had reached out in late July with questions about format—questions she declined to disclose—and that she had sent an email reply on Monday night. The campaign hasn’t replied, she told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
The next morning, the Walker campaign abruptly rejected the press club’s offer. The move came after an article in the Washington Free Beacon revealed that in 2020, Strauss had donated $173 to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and $35 to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ).
Strauss provided a statement to The Daily Beast acknowledging the total $208 to Biden and Kelly—“both of whom are longtime family friends”—but pointed out that she hasn’t given money to any Georgia candidates, and that the other APC board members mentioned in the Free Beacon report “do not have anything to do with our debates.”
“The reason we are able to host an extensive series each year is largely due to an endowment from the late Charlie Loudermilk, who was a known conservative businessman in Georgia and lifelong Republican,” the statement read, adding that Loudermilk believed in “a robust discussion of the issues from people of differing political views.”
Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, told the outlet that “we’re leaving the elite media behind and rejecting the partisan Press Club debate.”
On Tuesday morning, Walker posted a Twitter video in response to the report.
“Think about it. The people supposedly running a fair debate are helping pay for Warnock’s campaign,” Walker said in the video.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, Nexstar employees, including its president of digital operations, contributed more than $10,000 to Warnock, Biden, and the Democratic National Committee in 2020, as well as about $6,000 to former President Donald Trump’s various PACs.
Notably, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has committed to an APC debate this fall against Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams. And in 2020, former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) debated Warnock at the Atlanta Press Club event—twice.
While Nexstar’s official political action committee hasn’t given any money to Warnock, Biden, or Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), the Nexstar PAC did give $5,000 apiece to Ossoff and Warnock’s 2020 Republican opponents—Loeffler, and former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).
Paradise didn’t respond when asked whether the campaign would reject the Nexstar debate on the same principle.
If Walker does not participate at the APC, he will be represented as Perdue was when he skipped the second debate—by an empty lectern.
It is unclear whether the Nexstar debate will offer Walker the same opportunity if Warnock declines—and if so, whether Walker would take it.