SAVANNAH, Ga. – Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and his Republican opponent, former football star Herschel Walker, faced off on Friday night for their first and likely only debate, using the face-to-face meeting to make their cases to voters just a few weeks before Election Day.
The debate came amid a hectic final push by the two candidates to win over the moderate and swing voters who could very well decide which party will control the Senate. While most polls show Warnock with a narrow lead over Walker, neither candidate is scoring the majority support needed to win the Senate seat outright.
Here are five takeaways from the debate between Warnock and Walker.
Walker holds his own
Weeks before the debate, Walker began lowering expectations for a standout performance, saying that he’s “not that smart” and predicting that Warnock would “show up and embarrass” him.
But Walker largely avoided the kind of embarrassment he had teased. While Warnock landed several punches, Walker frequently went on offense, pummeling Warnock as a rubber stamp for President Joe Biden’s agenda and an out-of-touch politician.
Of course, Walker has been preparing for the debate for weeks, and his expectation-setting ahead of the face-off meant that he had to clear a lower bar. Still, he appeared intent on soothing the concerns of voters who may have been uneasy about electing to the Senate a former football player with an at-times questionable personal and business history.
“For those of you who are concerned about voting for me, I’m not a politician,” Walker said. “I want you to think about the damage politicians like Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock have done to this country.”
That’s not to say Walker didn’t make some blunders. At one point, when addressing the cost of insulin, Walker said that people “gotta eat right.” And in the most memorable and bizarre moment of the night, Walker was reprimanded by the debate’s moderator for brandishing a prop badge in response to remarks that he once claimed to have worked for law enforcement.
Warnock keeps his cool
Even before the debate, Warnock had established a reputation as a cool and compelling speaker — a reputation earned through his years as a pastor.
That sense of ease was on display on Friday as Warnock delivered a careful, yet firm, defense of his record in the Senate, never stumbling over his own words, even in the face of several interruptions by Walker.
That’s not to say that Warnock spent the entire night on offense. He was forced to fend off questions about his stance on abortion rights and how best to address towering inflation. Still, he managed to put Walker on defense as well, accusing his Republican rival of having a tenuous relationship with the truth.
“We will see time and time again tonight what we’ve already seen: that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” Warnock said. “Just because he says something doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Biden dominates — for better or worse
If there was one consistent theme in Walker’s debate performance, it was his repeated effort to tie Warnock to Biden and turn the election into a referendum on the president.
Time and again, Walker brought his remarks back to Biden, seeking to draw attention away from himself and the controversies that have roiled his campaign. He made clear in his opening remarks that the Senate contest shouldn’t be treated as a personality contest.
“This race ain’t about me,” he said. “It’s about what Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have done to you and your family.”
Warnock, meanwhile, largely defended Biden and his party’s priorities, touting the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — a massive tax and climate change bill signed into law earlier this year — and boasted that he pressed Biden to implement some sort of student loan forgiveness.
That’s not to say Warnock embraced Biden entirely. Asked whether Biden should run for a second term in the White House in 2024, Warnock demurred.
“I’ve not spent a minute thinking about what politician should run for what in 2024,” Warnock said.
Walker allegations fade into the background
Walker’s campaign has found itself mired in controversy repeatedly over the past year. One of the most explosive instances came last week, when The Daily Beast reported that Walker had paid for his now-ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009.
That allegation — which Walker has vehemently denied — flew in the face of his ardently anti-abortion campaign stance. Walker has said that he would support a national ban on the procedure without any exceptions.
But that allegation received little attention on Friday night, allowing Walker to go relatively unscathed on a matter that Democrats see as a potentially fatal weakness for him.
Asked about the abortion allegation during the debate, Walker said that he has been transparent about his personal life, but once again denied the account.
“I say that was a lie,” he said. “And I’m not backing down.”
And the debate didn’t linger on the topic. Instead, it gave way to a conversation about abortion rights that pivoted more on policy and ethics than on Walker’s own alleged behavior. Warnock, for his part, demurred in attacking his opponent over the allegations as well.
The debate’s not likely to change the race much
With Warnock and Walker running only a few points apart in polling ahead of the election, the debate offered the two candidates a chance to sway voters to their respective sides.
That likely didn’t happen.
While both Warnock and Walker sought to assuage any concerns about their candidacies, neither said much to reach out to voters still on the fence. Walker highlighted his anti-abortion stance, talked about his friendship with former President Trump and railed against the idea of student debt forgiveness.
For his part, Warnock leaned into his party’s key talking points. He hammered Republican efforts to ban or severely curtail abortion access, touted Democrats’ legislative record and lamented a Georgia election law that critics say makes it harder for people to vote.
In short, if voters weren’t swayed by either Walker’s or Warnock’s message before Friday, the debate probably didn’t do much to change that.