Warnock answers Libertarian wildcard in Ga.; Walker skips

Oct 16, 2022, 9:59 AM | Updated: Oct 17, 2022, 12:48 pm
Libertarian challenger Chase Oliver speaks at a U.S. Senate debate with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, ...

Libertarian challenger Chase Oliver speaks at a U.S. Senate debate with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., during the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series in Atlanta on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. Republican challenger Herschel Walker was invited but did not attend. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

(AP Photo/Ben Gray)

ATLANTA (AP) — Libertarian Chase Oliver isn’t going to win Georgia’s pivotal U.S. Senate race. But the 37-year-old Atlanta businessman could help determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate over the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term.

Oliver is the third name on the ballot in the marquee matchup between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.

In most states, that make would Oliver an afterthought. But Georgia law requires an outright majority to win statewide office. With polls suggesting a tight contest between Warnock and Walker, it may not take a considerable share of the vote for Oliver to force a runoff, potentially repeating the 2020 scenario when Georgia’s two runoffs helped Democrats secure narrow control on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t have any interest in partisan bickering. I owe no allegiance to either party. I only owe allegiance to you, the voter,” Oliver said Sunday night on an Atlanta debate stage, as he urged Georgia voters to “send a message” to the two major parties by denying both Warnock and Walker a first-round victory.

The Atlanta Press Club debate was likely Oliver’s lone opportunity in the spotlight. He shared the stage with Warnock. An empty podium stood between them to represent Walker, who declined the Press Club’s invitation.

Warnock, the 53-year-old senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church who won the seat in a 2021 special election, and Walker, a 60-year-old businessman and former football star, met in their only scheduled one-on-one debate Friday in Savannah. Oliver was not included in that debate because he did not meet organizers’ polling threshold.

Oliver used his platform Sunday to pitch a third way in American politics. But he also acknowledged that perhaps his best opening to attract support comes from Walker’s struggles to navigate his rocky past, including reports that the staunch anti-abortion Republican paid for the 2009 abortion of a then-girlfriend who later gave birth to their child. Oliver also suggested that Walker, who is making his first bid for public office, doesn’t have the policy depth for the job.

“I can properly articulate the message of small government in a way that we just haven’t seen Herschel doing,” Oliver said after the debate, adding a sports metaphor given Walker’s iconic status as a former University of Georgia running back. “If you want to suit up and get on the field … you can’t just walk off when you don’t want to play. So I think he should have shown up tonight.”

A runoff, if needed, would take place Dec. 6, setting up a four-week blitz after the general election, Nov. 8. That’s half the time of Georgia’s runoff campaign two years ago, when Warnock and Jon Ossoff prevailed over their Republican rivals with Senate control at stake.

Whether a Georgia runoff could again decide the Senate majority will depend on the outcomes of competitive races in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and elsewhere. The Senate now is divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the tie-breaking vote. Georgia is the only Senate battleground that faces a runoff possibility.

Neither Warnock nor Walker has publicly discussed a possible second round.

“We’re focused on getting the job done Nov. 8,” Walker spokesman Will Kiley said ahead of Sunday’s debate.

Warnock on Sunday minimized Oliver’s candidacy, declaring “the reality” that either he or Walker “will represent Georgia in the Senate.” And he noted that early in-person voting begins Monday. “The people of Georgia can avoid a runoff. They can show up tomorrow,” he said.

He noted Walker’s absence: “Half of being a senator is showing up.” And he mocked Walker for pulling out a badge during their Friday debate as supposed proof that the Republican has been a law enforcement officer. Walker has never been a trained, sworn law enforcement official, though he stood by his claims in an NBC News interview this weekend, according to partial transcripts released Sunday by the network.

Though Warnock sidestepped Oliver, the Libertarian still put the senator on the defensive, noting that inflation has continued despite Warnock touting Democrats’ “Inflation Reduction Act.” Warnock also pushed back on Oliver’s critiques of Washington dysfunction, pointing to measures he’s worked on with Republicans: a highway project with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a maternal mortality bill with Florida’s Marco Rubio and a measure with Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville to expand markets for peanut farmers.

Warnock did not take questions from reporters after the debate.

Oliver, who is gay, took Walker to task for his rhetoric against LGBTQ persons. “I’m tired of seeing my community demonized over and over again, particularly by Republicans,” he said.

Since 2014, Libertarians in Georgia have won 2% of the vote, on average, in contests for governor and U.S. senator.

Even if Walker gives Oliver his best opening to increase that share, it’s not necessarily true that Oliver’s candidacy would help Warnock in the long run.

In November 2020, Libertarian Senate candidate Shane Hazel won 2.3% of the vote in a race where Ossoff was challenging Republican incumbent David Perdue. Perdue led Ossoff in the general election by about 88,000 votes, but finished with 49.7% of the nearly 5 million votes, mere thousands from a majority that would have meant a second term and a continued GOP majority in the Senate.

With a second chance, Ossoff outpolled Perdue by about 55,000 votes and won a full term.

Warnock won his seat over then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, the same night as Ossoff. But Loeffler and Warnock had advanced to a runoff from a 20-candidate special election field that featured candidates of all parties, so neither of them had come close to an outright majority in the first round.

Before the debate Oliver told The Associated Press that forcing a runoff this time would mean “that there were enough voters who felt like they weren’t being listened to.”

Once on stage, he confirmed he had no intention of endorsing either Warnock or Walker if the two meet in a second round. “It’s not my job,” he said, “to make a decision for you on who to support in a theoretical runoff.”

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Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.

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Warnock answers Libertarian wildcard in Ga.; Walker skips