SAVANNAH, Ga. — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker met Friday for their first and only debate in a brutally competitive Georgia Senate race, clashing over abortion and inflation, but agreeing that the 2020 election was legitimately won by President Joe Biden.
The debate was marked by frequent interruptions by Walker, a first-time political candidate, who sought to portray the Democratic incumbent as a creature of Washington who votes with Biden too often. Warnock defended his votes on a sweeping climate and health care bill and gun violence prevention legislation during his two years in the Senate.
At the center of the recent controversy stands Walker, the former University of Georgia football star whose once-shining brand in the state have take a hit amid a drumbeat of tabloid-style stories and attack ads detailing past domestic abuse allegations against him from an ex wife and a recent claim that the Republican paid for a woman’s abortion, which he denies.
"Well, as I said, that's a lie," Walker said when asked about the accusations. "On abortion, I'm a Christian. I believe in life. ... I'll be a senator that protects life."
Warnock said he supports legal abortion, because “I trust women more than I trust politicians.”
In the debate, Walker rejected the fabricated claims by his longtime friend — former President Donald Trump, whose early endorsement boosted him in the GOP contest — that the 2020 election was stolen.
“President Biden won and Senator Warnock won. That’s the reason I decided to run," Walker said when asked if Biden defeated Trump in the election.
Heading into the debate, Walker called himself a “dumb country boy,” setting low expectations against Warnock, the eloquent pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. used to minister.
Walker’s debate goal was simple: Go on offense and tie Warnock to the unpopular president, rising gas prices and high inflation.
Warnock hammered Walker for opposing the Inflation Reduction Act to defend himself against attacks that his votes fueled inflation. He also rapped Walker over a questionable veterans' charity, and Walker hit back by drawing attention to an unflattering story about a management company's attempts to evict tenants at an apartment building owned by a charity associated with Warnock's church.
“Here’s how you know I’m running against a desperate candidate," Warnock replied. "Any time a candidate would stoop to the level of trying to sully the name … of Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and John Lewis’s church, you know that’s a desperate candidate.” Warnock’s campaign later pushed back as well, citing an article that said no tenants had been evicted since June 2020.
But Walker repeated the accusation, referring to one of the Ten Commandments while accusing Warnock of lying. “Do not bear false witness,” he said.
Warnock also criticized Walker for accusing him of being soft on crime.
"My opponent has a problem with the truth," he said.
In a notable exchange, Warnock took aim at Walker’s erratic behavior in the past and his false claims he had worked in law enforcement.
“One thing I’ve never done is pretend to be a police officer. I’ve never threatened a shoot-out with the cops,” Warnock said, referring to a reported incident between Walker and his estranged wife.
Walker then produced some sort of badge, suggesting he was in law enforcement and prompting a moderator to repeatedly ask him to put the badge away, saying the rules of the debate barred the use of props.
Another contrast between the candidates appeared on health care. Warnock called for expanding Medicaid to cover Georgians who are uninsured due to the state's decision not to accept extra funding under the Affordable Care Act. Walker appeared flat-footed when asked if he favors Medicaid expansion, saying that "people have coverage for health care" and that he wants Georgians to "get off the government health care and get on the health care he’s got," gesturing toward Warnock.
GOP operatives, wary of Walker’s turbulent past, have been concerned for months about his prospects in a race that gave Democrats control of the 50-50 Senate in 2020 and may well be decisive again this fall.
Although the abortion allegations haven't completely upended the race, Walker has fallen slightly behind in the averages of public-opinion surveys on the race in the two weeks since the story broke. He now trails Warnock by more than 3 points, but most surveys show the race within the margin of error.
The negative press dogging Walker has become so all-consuming that the race has become centered on him, prompting a super PAC backing the Republican to start running a TV ad this week that features years-old police body-camera footage of Warnock’s ex-wife weeping and accusing him of being abusive amid a divorce-related dispute, which Warnock denies. Republicans unsuccessfully sought to use the allegations to defeat Warnock in 2020.
“I went through a divorce, like a lot of people,” Warnock said when asked about the claims, calling it a “painful period” and adding he remains close to his two children. “My children know that I am with them and for them, and that I support them in every single way that a father does.”
Those same polls show Republican Gov. Brian Kemp with a healthy lead over Democratic challenger Stacy Abrams, a sign that Walker’s personal issues might be damaging him.
Walker’s own internal polling shows he’s essentially tied with Warnock, who it says is winning independents and who is doing better among Democratic voters than Walker is among Republican voters. The polling also showed Libertarian Chase Oliver is drawing more Republican voters from Walker than Democratic voters from Warnock, putting pressure on Walker to make his case Friday to disaffected Republicans.
But the race is so close, and Georgia politics are so unpredictable that operatives from both parties are bracing for the possibility that no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, which would trigger a runoff in December.
Later in the debate, Warnock wouldn't say whether he wants Biden to run for re-election in 2024, telling the audience he hasn't spent any time thinking about that and is focused on his race.
Walker, however, said he would support a Trump 2024 bid.
"Yes I would," Walker said.