U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker is not talking to reporters. He’s not appearing on the debate stage to talk issues with his opponents on the May 24 Republican primary ballot.

But the University of Georgia football icon who led the Dawgs to the 1980 national championship is so far ahead in the polls he can afford to ignore the primary and focus his attention on Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock.

That lack of engagement in the primary race has allowed Walker’s GOP opponents to declare open season on him.

“We’ve all hit the [campaign] trail and taken the tough questions,” Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer said last Tuesday night during a televised debate where an empty podium represented Walker’s no-show.

“This is the easy part. If Herschel Walker can’t get up here, he certainly can’t beat Raphael Warnock in November.”

Besides Saddler and Walker, the Republican candidates vying for the right to challenge Warnock this fall include Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black of Commerce, former state Rep. Josh Clark of Flowery Branch, small business owner and Air Force veteran Kelvin King of Atlanta and retired Brig. Gen. Jonathan McColumn of Warner Robins.

As is typical in any primary contest, the candidates agree on a host of issues from abortion to crime to federal spending.

While a looming U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected to overturn abortion on demand likely will have a huge impact on the general election this fall, the Republicans running for the Senate are all on the same page.

“I am pro-life,” said Black. “Life begins at conception, period.”

Clark, who served two terms in the state House in the first half of the last decade, has pledged to introduce a “personhood amendment” to the U.S. Constitution containing a total ban on abortion with no exception for incest or rape.

“Why should the child be murdered for the sins of the father?” he declared.

King, who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and rose to the rank of captain before leaving the military and starting a construction business, blamed “divisive rhetoric” from Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters for the civil unrest and rise in crime during the pandemic.

King, who is African American, said the identity politics Democrats practice ignore Black Americans’ ability to overcome social disparities.

“Crime is going to increase when you don’t back law enforcement,” he said. “We need to make sure law enforcement is protected and supported.”

McColumn said the key to reining in federal spending is to get a grasp on runaway entitlement spending on programs including Medicare and Social Security.

“We have to make a determination how to fund them and at what level,” he said.

“We don’t have the resources we had in the past,” Saddler added. “We have to get spending under control.”

McColumn and Saddler bring the most foreign policy and national security experience to the table among the candidates.

In 35 years in the Army, McColumn said he commanded 6,000 troops and oversaw $6 billion in annual contracts. Saddler served in the Trump administration as director of intelligence programs for the National Security Council.

McColumn faulted the Biden administration for waiting too long to get the U.S. involved in the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, Saddler cautioned against the U.S. allowing itself to get dragged into the conflict to the point that American lives are put at risk.

“I don’t want to see boots on the ground,” he said. “We should be encouraging our European partners to cough up more.”

The candidates also took stands against vaccine and mask mandates as government overreach that rob Americans of their freedom.

“The [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has gotten to be political rather than science-based,” Clark said. “They have got to be reined in.”

An issue that divides the Senate Republican candidates – mirroring a split in the Georgia GOP – is whether President Joe Biden captured the state’s 16 electoral votes in November 2020 fair and square.

Clark said the election in Georgia was “stolen” from Republican Donald Trump, blaming the mailing out of nearly 7 million absentee ballot requests for “massive ballot harvesting” that affected the outcome.

King said there were undoubtedly “improprieties” but stopped short of declaring they had an effect on the results.

Black and McColumn said they were disturbed by Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results outside the legal process.

“When people ignore the rule of law, there’s trouble,” McColumn said.

Black and Saddler said the passage of election reforms by the Republican-controlled General Assembly last year should help retore public trust in the voting process.

“People just want transparency,” Saddler said. “We need to go back to the paper ballots and voting in person.”

The candidates are united in casting doubt on Walker’s chances to defeat Warnock this fall, even if he coasts to the Republican nomination this month as expected.

Black’s campaign pointed to a poll released Thursday by SurveyUSA that shows Walker losing to Warnock by 5 points, 50% to 45%.

“Herschel Walker is ignoring the voters of Georgia,” Black said. “Herschel Walker will not win in November.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams is Capitol Beat bureau chief.

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