Midterm Elections

Warnock, Walker Meet For Only Debate In Georgia Senate Race

The outcome of their race will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate for the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term.

Warnock, Walker Meet For Only Debate In Georgia Senate Race
AP Photo

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, will meet Friday night for their only debate in Georgia's marquee Senate contest, just days before in-person early voting begins.

The 60-minute session, which will take place before a live audience, comes in the wake of reports that Walker paid for a girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009 before later fathering a child with her. Additionally, the matchup could force both men to answer other attacks — personal and political — that have flooded voters' television screens and social media feeds for months.

"Raphael Warnock will have to answer why he has voted 96% of the time with (President) Joe Biden, giving us record-high inflation, all while doubling his own income," Walker aide Will Kiley said, previewing now-familiar assertions from Republicans.

Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.

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Warnock's campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, wrote in a memo that the debate will highlight Walker's "pattern of lies, disturbing behavior, and positions" that "prove he is not ready to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate." Fulks added, however, that Warnock would highlight his nearly two years in the Senate as proof he "will work with anyone to help the people of our state."

Those previews track ground that Warnock, the 53-year-old pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Walker, the 60-year-old former college and professional football star, have staked out in a midterm election that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Biden's term.

Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff won their Senate seats in a January 2021 special election two months after President Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. That was the first time in two decades Democrats won federal elections in the historically-conservative state, raising questions about whether Warnock can replicate his victory in a midterm election, especially with President Biden's popularity down among Georgia voters.

Walker has seized on that landscape, caricaturing Warnock as a rubber-stamp for the administration. Warnock's answer has been to emphasize legislative accomplishments in Washington, with a focus on provisions he sponsored capping insulin and other health care costs for Medicare recipients, Democrats' extension of the child tax credit and infrastructure provisions that Warnock shepherded with Republican colleagues.

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A major variable in the debate is how aggressively Warnock chooses to directly attack Walker on various allegations and disclosures that have surfaced throughout the campaign. The senator typically has defaulted to his broad assertion that Walker is ill-prepared for office. But debate moderators could inject more details of Walker's past.

Recent reporting by The Daily Beast disclosed records of an abortion receipt and a subsequent personal check from Walker to a woman who said the celebrity football icon paid for her abortion when they were dating. Walker, who as a candidate backs an outright national ban on abortion, continues to deny the reports, even after the woman identified herself as the mother of one of his four children.

Other reports, including from The Associated Press, have detailed how Walker has exaggerated his academic achievements, business success and his 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. 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 reports 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.

Walker himself has avoided attacks on Warnock's family life, though he campaigned earlier this week with Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the Senate GOP's campaign arm that paid for some of those ads.

The Savannah debate, coming days before Monday's start of early in-person voting, is the two rivals' only meeting because Walker declined to accept the three fall debates typical in Georgia campaigns. Warnock accepted that slate of proposed debates in June, only to have Walker balk and counter with Friday's debate. The Friday debate will not include Libertarian Chase Oliver, who did not meet organizers' polling threshold.

Just one of those original three debates is still scheduled: Warnock will meet Oliver in a Sunday session sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. In that debate, Walker will be represented by an empty podium because he declined the invitation.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.