A Joe Biden donor is the organizer behind a U.S. Senate debate in Georgia that will allow Democratic senator Raphael Warnock to symbolically debate an empty podium after Republican challenger Herschel Walker turned down the invitation.
Atlanta Press Club director Lauri Strauss, who is organizing the debate, and at least three other members of the group’s board have donated thousands to Democrats, including Biden, Georgia Democratic senator Jon Ossoff—and Warnock himself.
Strauss in 2020 donated $173 to Biden and $35 to Sen. Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.), according to campaign finance records. Strauss is the organizer of the press club debate and personally extended the group’s invitation to Walker, according to an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
“Mr. Walker’s opponent has confirmed his participation in our debate, and we hope to have your confirmation as well,” wrote Strauss in a June 21 email to Walker’s campaign. “I look forward to hearing back from you.”
News of the donations comes after Walker declined to attend the debate, citing political bias at the Atlanta Press Club. The contributions could fuel criticism of the organization, which has said it will allow Warnock at the Oct. 16 event to debate with an empty podium symbolizing Walker’s absence. If one candidate does not show up, having the other candidate debate an empty podium is a long-standing policy for the APC.
Walker’s campaign has agreed to participate in a different debate hosted by Nexstar Media Group on Oct. 14, which Warnock declined.
“We’re not going to be bullied by their thinly veiled threat of an empty podium—because it’s not a podium, it’s a campaign prop. So we’re leaving the elite media behind and rejecting the partisan Press Club debate,” said Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon.
Other members of the Atlanta Press Club’s board also appear to be Democratic donors, according to campaign finance records. Keith Pepper in 2020 donated over $2,500 to Warnock and over $500 to Ossoff. Rene Alegria donated $500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $250 to Biden, and $60 to Ossoff. Deisha Barnett donated $500 to Warnock.
The Atlanta Press Club did not respond to a request for comment.
Strauss told the Free Beacon that she “made donations to Joe Biden and Mark Kelly in 2020, both of whom are longtime family friends.” But she said she has not contributed to any Georgia candidates and added that the other board members “do not have anything to do with our debates.”
She also said the Atlanta Press Club is “proud of our reputation [for] holding balanced and fair debates for all candidates” for the past 30 years and said the debate series was funded by an endowment from the late Charlie Loudermilk, a Republican philanthropist who passed away last week.
Former Georgia congressman and House speaker Newt Gingrich, a surrogate for Walker, told the Free Beacon the donations are an indication of the group’s political slant.
“Herschel Walker is exactly right to reject the Atlanta Press Club debate proposal as many of its leadership donated to Democrats, including radical-left Senator Warnock,” said Gingrich. “They are a one-sided, biased organization. Walker should continue to insist on open fair debates in front of Georgians. Let Warnock hide behind his liberal media supporters.”
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