It was a scene that looked like a Hollywood movie. On the street corner outside the debate venue on the Savannah riverfront Friday evening, opposing groups of Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock voters chanted support and waved yard signs for their candidate. “Let’s go Warnock!” answered “Run, Herschel, run!” with the volume and intensity increasing whenever a news camera pointed their direction. Almost all the 50 or so Warnock supporters were Black. Almost all the nearly equal number of Walker supporters were white. 

The scene

The debate took place in what once was a power plant. Decommissioned in 2005, Georgia Power’s Plant Riverside underwent a $375 million makeover in a public/private partnership that opened up the formerly industrial end of River Street to tourism and entertainment. Savannah’s industrial muscle still flexes nearby, with the port’s towering cranes visible upriver and a massive container ship blocking the view as it slipped by pre-debate.

Walker supporters outside the debate venue. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

Walker supporters stand strong

One woman in the pro-Walker cheering section outside the JW Marriott said she supported the candidate in large part because of his anti-abortion stance. She was not swayed by allegations he had paid for a girlfriend to have one abortion and pressured her to have another. “I don’t think there’s any truth to that,” she said. “This person has not identified themself. Why would we believe someone who’s not willing to identify themself and say ‘I’m the one and this is what happened to me?’” This Walker supporter’s name? “I don’t really want to go on record,” she said, over the chant of ‘Hey, hey, ho ho, Warnock has got to go.’ “I’m just here to support Herschel.”

Warnock supporter seeks solutions

Sarita Smith Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

Savannah State University student Sarita Smith on Friday wore a sky blue t-shirt that proclaimed “Climate Voters Unite!” She’s pro- Warnock in part because he supports Historically Black Colleges and Universities like hers. And as evidenced by her attire, climate change is on her mind, too. “Savannah has an issue with flooding in minority communities so I would like to look at that issue and what we can do to solve it,” she said.

Pre-debate, Smith said she’d be listening for a climate change question to the candidates. There wasn’t one. The candidates addressed inflation, gun violence, student loans, personal integrity, healthcare, the war in Ukraine, expanding the Supreme Court, a second term for Joe Biden, even the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop, but were not asked about how they plan to protect Georgia from rising seas and sweltering temperatures.

Odd candidate out

Libertarian candidate for US Senate Chase Oliver arrived alone outside Plant Riverside on Friday evening. He wore a cowboy hat and carried an armload of Oliver for Senate signs. He was looking for supporters who would later join him for an outside protest during the debate. And he wasn’t where he’d rather be, he said. 

“I’d prefer to be up on stage,” Oliver said. He’d been denied a podium in the debate because his poll numbers were too low. “Voters need to hear from all candidates.” The interview was interrupted at that point by a couple of tourists from Florida who asked if he’d take a quick photo of them along the riverside. Oliver obliged and headed off to find his crew. 

As the sun sets on Friday, US Senate candidate Chase Oliver (Libertarian) takes a picture for tourists Friday evening on the Riverwalk as media and partisan supporters for Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker gather a few feet away outside Plant Riverside before the two candidates debate event. Oliver wasn’t invited to the stage because he didn’t meet the polling threshold required.

Later, after the debate, Oliver stood outside District Live watching the media crews pack up. He said he’d watched the debate. “Walker was embarrassing and Warnock was coasting – he needs to get ready for the Atlanta Press Club debate. I’ll be there. Walker won’t, but I will be. I’d hoped to be at this one and inject some common sense and not throw mud. He’d better get ready.” The Atlanta Press Club debate is 7 p.m. Sunday on Georgia Public Broadcasting (full schedule).

Kudos to parking crews

Tourists and hotel guests found themselves in the middle of a media and political sideshow at Plant Riverside. Credit: Susan Catron/The Current GA

The entrance to the JW Marriott hotel adjoins the small square next to the debate venue, District Live. On Friday afternoon as guests were arriving for the weekend, candidates and entourages, organizers, supporters, media and their crews crowded the area.

The parking attendants for the Marriott demonstrated mad skills moving large and small vehicles through the throngs and untangling traffic snarls while calming surprised tourists – including at least one bridal party –  and demanding news crews. 

The media crunch

Members of the media watched the debate on televisions set up in the spin room and a media room. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

Local, national and international media had limited and expensive access to the debate. Only invited guests and personnel from Nexstar Media Group, which owns WSAV in Savannah, were allowed to view the debate in person.

Dozens of other credentialed media watched the debate a few conference rooms away on “viewing screens,” otherwise known as televisions. JW Marriott charged media outlets $370 to secure a table, two chairs, WiFi and power access during the debate. After at least one major outlet complained, screens were also set up in the post-debate spin room. “Due to the volume of media who have been approved for credentials, we will be adding viewing monitors in both the post-debate news conference room and the atrium outside both that room and the Media Room – so anyone with a credential will have options for viewing the debate,” wrote David Hart, Vice President and General Manager of WSAV-3.

The audience view

  • Watch the debate

Inside the debate set, it was clearly a TV event – the setting for moderators and candidates was raised and audience members sat back and down from the action. The stage itself was a set used across the country for live Nexstar Media debates – the company planned around 50 events, and moderators and others practiced for the debate throughout the week. Nexstar owns WSAV and other affiliates across the nation.

Moderators Tina Tyus-Shaw of Savannah’s WSAV and Buck Lanford of FOX5 in Atlanta were set with backs to the audience, facing the candidates, surrounded by four floor cameras. A boom camera flew back and forth over their heads throughout the night, focused on the candidates. Two timekeepers also sat on stage with cards to warn the candidates as their answer times elapsed. 

Dave Hart of WSAV and Nexstar welcomes the debate audience at District Live as moderators behind them prep for the evening. Credit: Susan Catron/The Current GA

Separate sides

Ticketed audience members on the floor were clearly separated into supporter groups.  The left side of the room clearly cheered Warnock as he was introduced, and the right side stood and cheered for Walker at introduction. A few random “neutrals” sat quietly interspersed through each side. 

The ticket-only audience was made up of politicians, lobbyists, partisan donors, and Savannah civic leaders, including former mayors Otis Johnson and Edna Jackson. 

Audience members were given a list of “audience protocols” along with their tickets. The dress code included no ripped or torn clothing, and shoes were required. Audience members could not wear accessories or carry any buttons, clothing or anything identifiable for any candidate or political affiliation. Ticket holders were also told not to shout, clap or yell or make “extraneous noise to distract from the live broadcast.” That entreaty was lost as the candidates’ rhetoric warmed. 

Watch-party crowd gathers up the street

Ben Adams, otherwise known as DJ Pro2kall, bounced around the Herschel Walker debate watch party in downtown Savannah three blocks from the event itself. Warmly greeting some of the dozens of attendees at The Clyde (a coffee shop by day), the Savannah-native sported dreadlocks, glasses, and a shirt purchased from Black Guns Matter. He put a hand to his mouth and shouted “Trump” with a wide grin, upon seeing a friend walk through the door. Though Walker wasn’t his first pick for candidate, Adams said Walker’s values line up with his and those of other conservatives.  

“He believes how we believe as far as guns are concerned, as far as strong family values. Even though he’s had a past and he’s moved to do better,” Adams said. “Any man who can step up to that and own that, he’s a good man.”

Herschel Walker supporters watch the candidate debate at a downtown Savannah venue on Friday, Oct. 14. Credit: Jake Shore/The Current GA

‘Entitled to make mistakes’

Several attendees at The Clyde watch party mentioned how they respected that Walker had struggles with mental health, overcame them, and has been honest about them. “Everybody’s entitled to make mistakes. Do you learn from them?” Sara Laine-Moneymaker, who was raised in Savannah and a founding member of the Ladies on the Right conservative political group.

Cheers and jeers

During the debate, The Clyde’s main lighting dimmed to a low red. Between 50 and 60 mostly older men and women ate chicken, cheered Walker and jeered Warnock.

Special groans were reserved for whenever Warnock mentioned faith, his congregation and his church. “I am a man of faith,” Warnock said from the projected screen.
“No you’re not!” Someone from the Walker event shouted back.The loudest cheers from the crowd came after Walker said he would support Donald Trump for the presidency again in 2024. 

Ralph Reed addresses media in the spin room Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

The after-debate speakers

Conservative strategist Ralph Reed appeared in the spin room after the debate, joyful about Walker’s performance. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “I’ve worked on 11 presidential campaigns. I’ve worked on a lot of debate preps, I’ve been in a lot of debate strategist rooms. And this is as good a performance by a guy who, in Herschel, did a good job of keeping expectations low. We want to thank the media for keeping expectations low. …I’ve done a lot of interviews, and people have said, you know, he can’t string three sentences together. He doesn’t know the issues. That’s not who you saw on the stage tonight.” 

Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents Coastal Georgia, followed Reed in the spin room. “He looked as senatorial to me as I have seen anyone ever look,” Carter said. “I could not be any prouder than I am tonight to have Herschel Walker on my team.” Reed and Carter were the only ones to appear in the spin room. Neither candidate came and Warnock sent no surrogate.

On the street

Amid the laser lights, the end of Martin Luther King Boulevard turned into an ad hoc spin room following the debate with camera crews and media pundits.

Outside District Live, audience members and onlookers left, most looking for a restaurant or drink. Media crews from various networks wrapped up the event, creating an ad-hoc spin room in the brick square. International broadcasters interviewed pundits and audience members about their impressions, including Georgia Rep. Jesse Petrea and lLA leader Willie Seymour. As the candidates left, the small crowd dispersed, leaving news crews prepping for their next news stand-up at 11.

A pin on the political map?

Jay Jones, chair of the Chatham County Democratic Party and candidate for Georgia Senate District 1, watched the crowds grow late Friday afternoon and watched it quietly disperse after the event. He was jubilant as he watched the national media and the cheering supporters on the corners. “This will put Savannah on the map!” he said. “This is a beautiful sight! Look at that!”