By Tammy Joyner and Jill Jordan Sieder
Senior investigative reporters
SAVANNAH — The control of Congress may come down to 60 minutes Friday night in an historic venue in south Georgia.
The outcome of the much-anticipated U.S. Senate debate at Savannah’s Plant Riverside district between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican newcomer Herschel Walker will mean the continuation for Warnock or a dead-end for Walker and importantly, could swing control of the U.S. Senate, which is now split 50-50, during the midterm elections.
Runoff victories in 2021 by Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the Senate with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
Warnock’s political future in Georgia rests on the Nov. 8 election. This will be his first bid for a full six-year term. He defeated Kelly Loeffler in 2021 to finish out a term vacated by the late-Johnny Isakson, who resigned in December 2019 due to illness. Isakson died in December 2020.
Walker’s political career could end before it even begins ,depending on how viewers — and ultimately voters — rate his 60-minute performance behind the podium in the 400-person concert hall at the J.W. Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside’s Atlantic Building.
In addition to competing against each other, the two candidates also had to compete against Friday night baseball. Many bars and restaurants like B&D Burgers in Savannah’s City Market were tuned to the National League Division series games, which included the Atlanta Braves against the Philadelphia Phillies.
State Affairs spent Friday night in Savannah and metro Atlanta with ordinary folks capturing the mood and the momentum of The Big Debate.
Unanswered questions and letdowns
Lots of unanswered questions and a bit of a letdown. That’s the opinion of a group of Savannah-area residents who watched Friday night’s long-awaited Walker-Warnock debate.
The gathering of a dozen or so Savannah-area residents at the historic Thomas Weihs Haus, drew an assortment of people: Men and women, young, old, gay, straight, Black and white. The watch party was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.
The gathering drew hoots, groans and raucous comments at various times, especially when it came to the issue of abortion.
Some felt the two candidates skirted around issues and got side-tracked by the occasional verbal dustups that moderator Tina Tyus-Shawn, a local Savannah TV anchor, had to quell.
“Looking at Herschel Walker against Warnock is a total opposite,” said Gerald Chamber, owner of Thomas Weihs Haus with his husband Michael Gronebaum. “You’ve got somebody who knows the rules and knows how to explain it. And then you have somebody who has absolutely no idea. I don’t even know if he knows where he is.”
Connie Kemp, no relation to Gov. Brian Kemp, said the debate clearly showed her what she called the “Walker phenomenon.”
“It’s so humiliating to people of color because he’s a pawn,”said Kemp, a white woman who lives in Guyton. “He’s everything they [Republicans] want him to be because he’s terrible. It just shows the racial problem.”
Others thought Walker did much better than expected.
“I thought Walker held his own,” said Keith McCants of Richmond Hill. He watched parts of the debate while at work. “He didn’t change my mind on anything except he continues to deny the woman who said he paid for her abortion. Warnock looked a tad nervous to me, but he presented a statesmanlike presence on stage. He stayed on message and he is the man to beat in November.”
John Stern, a salesman for a medical supply company, found Walker “more direct” than Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“My friends would hate me for this but Herschel Walker was a little more direct,” Stern, who attended the watch party in Savannah, said. “He has nothing to lose being direct. I’m not talking about his personal life. We all have a million ghosts in our closet and people that say they don’t, I don’t want to be their friend.”
“He [Walker] did a little bit better than expected but he danced around a lot of the questions,” Gronebaum said. “Warnock did as expected. The questions about the church evictions and his divorce pointed out how biased the questions were in favor of Walker.”
“Walker surprised a lot of people and Warnock I don’t think lived up to the hype around him,” Steve Brown, a Republican who lives in Peachtree City, said. “He had this mystique about him being this high-powered pastor quick on his feet and a lot more fluid than Walker. I don’t think it came out during the debate.”
James Flanagan, a veteran and a veteran advocate who lives in Atlanta, watched the debate with his wife and children at their home, a tradition instilled in him by his parents when he was growing up and they watched debates together.
“Warnock was clearly the more polished politician but it didn’t always serve him well in the debate,” said Flanagan, who describes himself as a conservative. “There were a number of instances where he did not want to answer a question directly — two came at the end of the debate when he refused to say that he would support President Biden and increase the size of the Supreme Court.
“Walker in contrast wasn’t nearly as polished but made an effort to answer the questions. He did a great job in contrasting his straight forward responses with Warnock’s responses,” Flanagan added. “As a leader, you need to have the guts to stand with your principles even if it might hurt you with the voters. That’s what’s missing in our political leaders in 2022.”
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