Ted Budd skipped four Republican primary debates in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. GOP gubernatorial candidates in Ohio, Nevada and Nebraska also declined to engage with their opponents from the debate podium.
And on Tuesday, Herschel Walker is expected to miss a second debate against his Republican rivals for a crucial U.S. Senate seat after skipping the first.
As the most competitive phase of the midterm primary season unfolds this week, many candidates for major office — often Republicans — are abandoning the age-old tradition of debating their rivals before Election Day.
For some goof-prone candidates like Walker, avoiding the debate stage reduces the risk of an awkward moment. For others, it’s an opportunity to snub a media ecosystem they find elitist and fit into the mold of former President Donald Trump, who flaunted to miss some debates during the 2016 campaign. .
The Republican National Committee is already preparing to walk away from the 2024 presidential debates, although the final decision will likely rest with who runs as the party’s nominee.
But some of the Republicans who are still engaged in the process say skipping debates could ultimately leave would-be candidates vulnerable in a general election, unprepared to answer tough questions or engage with rivals in a way that could appeal to voters beyond the party base.
“If you can’t get on the stage and debate with your fellow Republicans, how the hell are you going to debate Raphael Warnock in the general election?” asked Latham Saddler, a Navy veteran and former Trump administration official. who is among five Republicans challenging Walker, referring to the incumbent Democrat.
“Usually if you’re hiding, you’re hiding for a reason,” Saddler said in an interview.
Walker holds a sizable lead over his rivals heading into the May 24 primary. His campaign did not grant an interview to The Associated Press despite repeated requests, including for this article. But after coming under fire from his rivals during Georgia’s first Republican Senate debate in April, including over his absence, Walker told North Georgia Access radio station WDUN that his opponents were jealous.
“Because right now Herschel is going to win that seat,” he said during an April 20 appearance on “Newsroom.” “They can’t win, so they turn to old politics where people are fed up. They want what people are going to do for their state of Georgia, and they can’t do anything but complain.
Although many of those who skipped the debates were Republicans, some Democrats followed a similar strategy. In Pennsylvania, which holds primary elections on May 17, Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman skipped a debate last month, saying he opted to participate in three more debates because they will have a wider reach on television.
A spokesman for Budd, Jonathan Felts, said that instead of attending the debates, Budd was focused on completing his tour of North Carolina counties so he could speak directly to voters.
In Walker’s case, his reluctance goes beyond the debate. He does not publicize his campaign stops widely and limits his appearances mainly to conservative media and friendly audiences. Campaign spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in an email last week that Walker conducted more than 105 interviews.
“The suggestion that Herschel is not accessible is a lie,” she said. “He does interviews and answers questions for thousands of Georgians as he travels across the state each week.”
But when Walker speaks, awkward moments can ensue.
He incorrectly referred to the late Congressman John Lewis as a senator and said the suffrage rights activist’s eponymous election bill – the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – “does not align with what John stood for.” Lewis”.
Walker recently questioned evolution at a religious gathering wondering why apes still existed if humans had evolved from them. And he told a reporter in January that asking him if he would have voted for a bipartisan infrastructure bill was “unfair” because he had not been “privileged” to receive all the facts about the measure. The bill was signed into law in November.
“You must be an Alabama fan because you asked that question there,” Walker, a college football star at the University of Georgia, told right-wing news site The Daily Caller. .
Walker did not graduate from the University of Georgia, but said he did — a lie initially repeated by his campaign on a website promoting his Senate bid. He repeatedly made false claims of voter fraud on his Twitter account following Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential election. In a tweet, he suggested that residents of several battleground states should be given the opportunity to vote again.
He also posted bizarre video messages, including one in which he said what he had learned from reading the Constitution the previous night was that “the people of Washington work for the American people, and we can demand and hold them accountable if we count all the legal votes”. .” He continued, “But if we start counting illegal votes, then we start working and depending on the government.”
In yet another video, he said anyone who wants to change the Constitution should be removed because the Constitution must stand. But then he added, “Maybe change it a little bit. But we should all rejoice in Who the Lord Jesus Christ is.”
Walker led the University of Georgia football team to a national title in 1981 and won the Heisman Trophy a year later. His status as a Georgian sports legend, along with Trump’s endorsement, made him a GOP frontrunner as soon as he entered the race in August.
Still, limiting questions and access can help avoid discussions about his tumultuous past. Officers responding to a 2001 report that Walker was armed and frightening his ex-wife at a home in suburban Dallas later noted that Walker “talked about having a shootout with police,” according to a report by police revealed by the AP in February. In a protective order sought by his then ex-wife in 2005, Walker was accused of repeatedly threatening her life.
Walker has been open about his long struggle with mental illness and acknowledged his violent impulses. His campaign dismissed the report of a shooting and accused the media of highlighting it.
While skipping the GOP debates is unlikely to hurt Walker in the primary, a general election no-show strategy — when he faces Warnock, an accomplished orator who serves as a pastor of one of the Georgia’s most prominent churches — might be a different story, said Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University.
Walker may have to persuade some voters to win what would likely be a close race, which would require her to “play around” and answer questions, she said.
Asked on WDUN if he would debate Warnock, Walker said he was determined to do whatever it takes to win.
“So Reverend Warnock better get ready because I’m getting ready,” he said.
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.