It’s a high stakes showdown in a high-profile and extremely expensive Senate race that’s among a handful across the country that will determine if Republicans win back the chamber’s majority.
First-term Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Republican challenger Herschel Walker face off Friday night in Savannah in their first and only debate ahead of next month’s midterm elections.
And the debate comes as Walker, a former college and professional football star, is facing the biggest controversy of his campaign for the Senate, as he continues to deny a bombshell report that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion 13 years ago. Walker — who is a vocal opponent of legalized abortion and supports a proposed 15-week federal ban against the procedure — has repeatedly called the allegations “a flat-out lie.”
With the controversy preceding the showdown, the sole debate in the contest is being framed as a “make or break” moment in a race where an average of the latest public opinion polls indicates Warnock with a slight three-point edge over Walker.
Walker, who won a Heisman Trophy and helped steer the University of Georgia to a college football national championship four decades ago, jumped into the GOP race to face off against Warnock in the summer of last year, after months of support and encouragement to run for the Senate by former President Donald Trump, his longtime friend.
This is Walker’s first run for public office and in the days leading up to Friday’s showdown, his public campaigning schedule has been light, giving the candidate ample time to prepare for the debate.
Walker, according to sources close to the campaign, is getting advice from such top Republicans as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented Georgia in the House for two decades and was a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of neighboring South Carolina. Walker has also taken part in mock question and answer sessions with campaign aides and has viewed Warnock’s debate performances in 2020 against then-Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with supporters at a rally for seniors, in Atlanta, GA. on Sept. 26, 2022 (Fox News)
“My biggest advice is to just keep smiling,” Gingrich told Fox News. “He needs to be positive and just keep drawing the big issue contrasts. The more Herschel stays at the level of Biden, inflation, crime, open borders, drug overdose, the more trouble Warnock is in.”
The narrow victory by Warnock, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach, over Loeffler and Democrat Jon Ossoff’s razor-thin win over GOP Sen. David Perdue on the same day in Georgia’s twin Jan. 5, 2021, runoff elections gave the Democrats the Senate majority. Warnock is now running to serve a full six-year term.
“Normally I don’t think debates matter a whole lot but in this particular case Herschel’s got a chance to elevate himself. The expectations for him are pretty low. And so to the extent that he exceeds expectations, even low expectations, could be a positive for him,” Trey Hood, the director of the University of Georgia’s survey research center, told Fox News.
“I think Warnock, no matter what, has command of policy issues and is very well spoken. I think expectations for him are high and I think he’ll meet them,” Hood added.
A source close to the Walker campaign said that the GOP nominee’s mission in the debate is “to show he’s a senator. That’s all he’s got to do.”
And the source argued that “the expectations are real high for Sen. Warnock. The expectations are real low for Herschel Walker.”
Walker himself has downplayed expectations, saying last month that “I’m not that smart” — comments that his campaign argued were sarcasm.
Asked in a Fox News Digital interview days later if he was attempting to lower expectations of his debate performance ahead of the showdown with Warnock, Walker said “not at all. Everyone has been telling me he’s [Warnock] such a smooth talker. He’s such an incredible speaker…. So I reckon I’m not as smart as Warnock. But I’m looking forward to the debate, because this country boy’s gotta show up and be prepared to go, and we’re gonna show the people the differences between he and I.”
The debate is being held on a Friday night, when many people in Georgia are attending high school football games.
“I doubt many people will watch the debate, but it will get recycled in the news. They’ll be exposed to it at that point,” Hood noted. “Most people will be at high school football games tonight in Georgia. But whatever happens, whatever soundbites are worthy, will get recycled over and over again in the news.”
Walker will likely use the debate to continue to try and tie Warnock to President Biden — who remains very unpopular among Georgia voters — and blame both for the record inflation plaguing the nation and for the rise in crime. In a fundraising email to supporters on the eve of the debate, Walker encouraged people to watch the debate and pledged to “defeat the disastrous Biden agenda” if he wins election to the Senate.
Georgia GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker and Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (Republican National Convention/Handout via REUTERS | Tom Williams/Pool via REUTERS)
Warnock’s campaign, in a Thursday memo, emphasized that the debate would “put on full display the clear choice” between the two major party Senate nominees. And Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks charged that Walker’s “pattern of lies, disturbing behavior and positions prove he is not ready to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.”
Thanks to his legendary status among many in Georgia and his immense, favorable, name recognition in the Peach State, Walker was the overwhelming front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination and basically ignored the field of lesser-known primary rivals, declining to take part in debates as he focused his campaign on Warnock. Walker ended up trouncing his rivals in the May primary, but he quickly came under fire as the general election got underway.
Walker has been heavily criticized both on the campaign trail and in ads over what Democrats call his numerous “bizarre or false statements.” A TV ad by Warnock’s campaign that launched over the summer highlighted past comments by Walker saying that he had a “dry mist” that would “kill any COVID on your body.”
Walker has also taken incoming fire over numerous reports that he overinflated the success of his businesses and academic record. And even before the current abortion allegations, Walker was forced to play defense regarding a number of personal controversies — from the accusations of past abuse and threats against his first wife, to acknowledging children he fathered out of wedlock that he had not previously publicly mentioned despite for decades criticizing absent fathers.
Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire