SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — On Friday, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker took the stage for their only debate, which was hosted by Nexstar Media Group.
The debate comes days before the November election, which is pivotal for both parties as they try to win the majority in the Senate, and break the 50-50 split. Georgia’s outcome has gained importance with Republican nominees in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Arizona potentially underperforming in races the GOP had targeted heading into the 2022 election season.
During their opening remarks Friday, Walker presented himself as the candidate of faith and family values and immediately tried to link Sen. Warnock to President Joe Biden, inflation and high taxes.
Warnock sidestepped the strategy and focused on his connection to the community, highlighting his childhood growing up as one of 12 children in a public housing development a mile away. He wrapped up his statement by telling the audience, “This race is about who’s ready to represent Georgia and the U.S. Senate. I think that choice is clear.”
Abortion takes center stage
Walker on Friday denied his previous support for an outright national ban on abortion, making the shift in his lone debate against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Walker, a staunch anti-abortion politician recently accused by a former girlfriend of encouraging and paying for her 2009 abortion, accused Warnock of misstating his position by saying Walker had supported a national ban on abortion, without exceptions.
Asked directly about those allegations during the debate, Walker responded, “Well, as I say, that’s a lie.”
Walker insisted his position is the same as Georgia’s state law, the so-called heartbeat bill that bans abortion at six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant.
But Walker had insisted at various points throughout the campaign that he supported a national abortion ban, without exceptions. “That’s a problem” that there is no national ban, he said at a campaign stop in July.
But on the debate stage, Walker tried to shift the question to Warnock. Walker blasted Warnock for being a Baptist pastor who supports abortion rights.
“On abortion, you know, I’m a Christian. I believe in life. … I’ll be a senator that protects life,” Walker said, later suggesting that Warnock doesn’t care about abortions in the Black community. Both men are Black.
“Instead of aborting those babies, why aren’t you baptizing those babies?” Walker asked.
Warnock insisted he can support abortion rights as a Christian and as a pastor. “God gave us a choice and I respect the right of women to make a decision. These are medical decisions, they are deeply personal,” Warnock said, adding that Walker “wants to arrogate more power to politicians than God has.”
Walker doesn’t dispute 2020 election
At one point in the debate the moderators turned to election security and protection of the vote, asking Sen. Warnock why he said in the past that the new Georgia voting laws implemented after the 2020 election created obstacles for underserved communities if Brennan Center for Justice data showed the state’s African-American vote growing roughly 50% between 2018 and 2022.
The sweeping election law, which has been called a Jim Crow-era measure by Democrats, requires a photo ID in order to vote absentee by mail and cuts the time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed.
“There’s no question that SB 202 makes voting harder. And that is the intent,” Warnock said. “The fact that many of our voters are overcoming this hardship doesn’t undermine that reality. They made it harder for folks to use the drop boxes. They’ve shortened the registration times, folks are saying, you know, you should be able to get food or water in line. I think the question is more fundamental than that, why the line so long in certain communities and not others.”
When it came to election fraud in Georgia, the moderators asked Walker directly if he believed that President Biden defeated Donald Trump, who Walker calls a friend, in the 2020 elections.
Walker didn’t hesitate to agree that Biden did win, something Trump has publicly denied without evidence, and instead used the moment to tie Sen. Warnock to the president’s agenda, asking the crowd why he voted with Biden “96% of the time.”
Moderator scolds Walker for flashing badge
In one of the more bizarre moments, one of the moderators stopped the debate to chastise Herschel Walker for using a prop.
The moment followed a quip by Sen. Warnock apparently referencing claims Walker had made in the past about working in law enforcement.
“I’ve never pretended to be a police officer and I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police,” Warnock said, drawing laughter from the crowd as he alluded to a two-decades-old police report saying that the former NFL star had discussed a shootout with officers.
Walker then appeared to pull a badge with a silver star out of his pocket and display it to the audience, for which he was quickly scolded by the moderator.
“Excuse me Mr. Walker, you are very well aware of the rules aren’t you, and you have a prop, that is not allowed sir. I ask you to put that prop away.”
In 2019, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated Walker’s claims that he had worked in law enforcement, including as a “certified police officer,” and found the claims to be false when authorities found no record to back them up.
Poll gives Warnock slight lead
While the race remains close, Sen. Warnock was leading Walker by two points according to a WSAV/Emerson College Polling/The Hill survey released Tuesday.
The poll had Warnock at 48% and Walker at 46, with 4% still undecided. Those numbers represent a 4-point swing for the Democratic incumbent who was trailing Walker by two points in August. Warnock’s support is driven by women, the poll found, with 51% of female voters backing the senator compared to 42% behind Walker.
Friday’s debate came one week after a New York Times report detailed the claims of a woman who says Walker paid for her abortion in 2009 and asked her to get a second one in 2011, which she declined.
In a brief interview with NBC News, Walker said he didn’t know about an abortion.
“The first I knew about any of this was when some reporter asked me about an abortion. And I’m like, ‘No, that’s a lie.’ And then I was asked if I paid for an abortion, and I said: ‘No. I did not pay for an abortion,’” Walker told the network. “I’m not saying she did or didn’t have one (an abortion). I’m saying I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know.”
Other reports, including from The Associated Press, have detailed how Walker has exaggerated his academic achievements, business success and philanthropic activities, as well as accusations that he threatened the life of his ex-wife that go beyond details Walker himself acknowledged in a 2008 memoir and subsequent media interviews. Walker also acknowledged three of his children publicly for the first time only after earlier Daily Beast reporting. Before his Senate bid, he’d spoken publicly only of Christian Walker, his adult son by his first wife.
Walker, as is typical of challengers battling incumbents, has proved much more eager to go after Warnock directly even before the debate. Citing Warnock’s Senate financial disclosures, Walker blasts Warnock as using the Senate to get rich. Warnock reported income from a book deal after his Senate election. He also reported a monthly housing allowance from Ebenezer Baptist Church in excess of $7,000 — an arrangement that allows Warnock to continue receiving a considerable annual sum from the church for his role as senior pastor without violating federal ethics rules capping senators’ outside income.
National Republicans, meanwhile, have recently aired ads highlighting Warnock’s personal life. One ad references a March 2020 incident in which Warnock’s then-wife, Oulèye Ndoye, told police he ran over her foot with his vehicle. Police records state that officers found no evidence that Warnock did so. The couple divorced before Warnock’s election to the Senate; they share two young children.
According to Georgia’s election rules, either Warnock or Walker will need to secure more than 50% of the vote to win the contest. Should neither manage to improve on their recent poll numbers, they would face off in a runoff election in December.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)