The first and likely only debate between the preacher and the former football star running for U.S. Senate in Georgia featured a lengthy exchange on abortion, a purported police "badge," lots of Bible references and a lopsided series of questions to the candidates about their personal lives.
The Democratic incumbent, Raphael Warnock, played up his moderate side, seeking to win over business-minded moderate Republicans and suburban women voters, who will cast crucial votes in what’s expected to be a close contest on Nov. 8.
Warnock, who was elected to the Senate early in 2021 and who remains pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the historic congregation led by Martin Luther King Jr. — stressed that he has worked with Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and called himself a “man of faith.”
The race between Warnock and Walker is one of a handful that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
At the outset of the hourlong debate in Savannah, Warnock spoke of growing up nearby as one of 12 children. “Clearly, my parents read the Bible: ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’” he said, quoting from the first chapter of the book of Genesis in one of several references to Scripture.
Herschel Walker, the Republican, sought to reassure skeptical voters, including those who might support Republican Gov. Brian Kemp but are not sure that Walker is up to the job.
“For those of you who are concerned about voting for me — a non-politician — I want you to think about the damage a politician like Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock has done to the country,” said Walker, who starred at the University of Georgia and then played 12 years in the National Football League. Walker owned a food services company after his career in sports was over.
Walker was the more aggressive of the two men on stage, repeatedly going after Warnock as a proxy vote for President Biden, and excitedly invoking Biblical language at one point to say to the Democrat, “Do not bear false witness, Senator!” Warnock was more measured in his responses, and made few direct criticisms of Walker.
Warnock did land one attack on Walker’s credibility. As they discussed public safety, Warnock shot at Walker, “One thing I have not done: I have never pretended to be a police officer. And I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police.”
Walker responded by pulling a black wallet from his suit jacket pocket that held a five-pointed gold badge, saying, “You know what’s so funny? I am — worked with many police officers.”
This drew a reprimand for Walker from one of the debate's two moderators, WSAV news anchor Tina Tyus-Shaw: “You have a prop. That is not allowed, sir.”
“Well, it's not a prop. This is real,” Walker said.
The episode served to underscore Walker’s record of making unfounded claims in public that he has “worked in law enforcement.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in June that he has made several such false statements over the years.
One of the more contentious exchanges of the night came during a lengthy back-and-forth over abortion.
Walker said it was “a lie” that he supported a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, as has been previously reported. “I said I support the heartbeat bill,” he said. “That has exceptions in it.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill in 2019 that would ban abortion at six weeks of gestation, which includes exceptions to protect the life of the mother, in case of rape or incest if a police report is filed, and if a pregnancy is “medically futile.” The law took effect in July after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade, which granted a constitutional right to abortion.
The moderator then asked Warnock if he would support “any limitations on abortion set by the government.” Warnock did not answer the question directly. He talked about the Roe vs. Wade decision, and said: “A patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government.”
Walker retorted, “Did he not mention that there's a baby in that room as well? And also, did he not mention that he's asking the taxpayer to pay for it, so he's bringing the government back into the room?”
In a brief but consequential moment, both candidates were asked if they would accept the results of the election. Both said yes. Former President Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election, continues to do so, and has been followed by many other Republicans who continue to maintain the baseless claim that he won the 2020 presidential election. A Washington Post report in September found that 12 of 19 Republican statewide candidates in key battleground states declined to answer or said they would not accept the results if they lost.
Walker, however, acknowledged that President Biden won the 2020 election, and also said he would support a run by Trump in 2024.
Warnock dodged a question asking whether he would support Biden if he ran for reelection, declaring that he had not thought about it and that he did not want to be a “pundit.”
When the debate turned to personal conduct, the two candidates got notably different types of questions.
Buck Lanford, a Fox 5 Atlanta TV anchor, asked Warnock two highly specific questions, and then put one very general and vague query to Walker.
His first question to Warnock was based on a report this week by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative-leaning website, about evictions at a housing complex owned by Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“As someone who receives more than $7,000 a month for a housing allowance from Ebenezer Baptist Church, how do you explain this to Georgia voters who are struggling currently to make ends meet?" Lanford asked Warnock.
Warnock said the accusations in the article that the church was responsible for evictions were “not true.”
“We have not evicted those tenants,” he said.
Lanford then asked Warnock, “Your ex-wife filed a lawsuit asking for increased child support, saying that she had to pay for child care on days that your duties as a senator interfered with your parenting time and citing significant increases in your income. What is your response to that lawsuit?”
After Warnock talked about the two children from his four-year marriage to Oulèye Ndoye, which ended in 2020, Lanford turned to Walker, asking: “Recent ads have highlighted allegations of past domestic violence. They've raised questions about how transparent you've been as far as your résumé. How do you respond to voters who question your integrity both personally and professionally?”
The lack of specifics in Lanford's question to Walker was notable, given the numerous allegations of domestic violence that have been raised about Walker, involving allegations that he held a gun to the head of his ex-wife, and a razor blade to her throat on another occasion.
No mention was made of reports that Walker had failed to inform his own campaign about three children he fathered by three women, in addition to his son with his ex-wife.
Walker has trailed in public polling for most of the race, and this debate was seen both as a high-risk moment in his troubled candidacy and an opportunity to tamp down the notion that he is not fit for the Senate.
After winning the May 24 Republican primary, Walker faced an uphill climb in the race. He made several gaffes in the late spring and early summer that raised questions about his grasp of basic facts and policy issues, and then revelations about his multiple children came to light.
Over the summer, Walker’s campaign and the national Republican Party kept him to a more disciplined script, and he was able to avoid further embarrassment.
But in early October, the Daily Beast — which reported on Walker’s multiple children — revealed that in 2009, the mother of one of Walker’s children had aborted a pregnancy with Walker’s financial support and encouragement.
The story was amplified by the angry denunciations of Walker by one of his own children, Christian, a conservative with a social media presence. In a post to his more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, Christian Walker accused his father of being a hypocrite and a liar. “He has four kids, four different women, wasn’t in the house raising one of them. He was out having sex with other women. Do you care about Christian values?” he said in a video posted to the site. “I’m done, done. Everything has been a lie.”
Walker has denied the accusations and did so again on Friday night during the debate. There were no follow-up questions. Walker initially threatened to sue the Daily Beast, but that lawsuit has not so far materialized.
Warnock’s first term in the Senate has run for less than two years, rather than six, because he won his seat in in a special election to complete the term of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons and who died last year.