ATLANTA — Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker engaged Friday night in what is scheduled to be their only debate ahead of the November midterms. Instant opinions and analyses were mixed about who won the debate.
Moderators in Savannah asked candidates about a range of issues in the hourlong debate - from election integrity and accusations of fraud in 2020, to abortion, to inflation and even to their personal lives.
The race for Georgia's second U.S. Senate seat is considered a critical one in the battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the upper chamber of Congress - and that race is a close one.
As Georgians look to the start of early voting on Monday, here are five key takeaways from their chance to see Warnock and Walker duke it out on the debate stage:
Claims of voter fraud in 2020 election
One of the moderators asked Walker - who is supported by former President Donald Trump - if he believed President Joe Biden defeated Trump during the 2020 election cycle.
Georgia was the center of controversy as recordings surfaced of the then-president pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to "recalculate" the state's election to "find" votes.
“President Biden won and Senator Warnock won and that’s why I decided to run," Walker responded.
Warnock said, "my opponent would rather be running against anybody except me."
Election officials have repeatedly debunked the claims of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 election.
Another hot button issue discussed was abortion.
A commentator pointed out that Warnock often says the doctor's office is too small for a patient and the government. The U.S. senator - the pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta - pointed out that he stands by that statement. They also played a video asking him to clear up a comment he made at a recent rally where he said, "I trust women in their wisdom, in their ability to sit with their own doctor and if they choose to sit with their pastor... and let their own conscience guide them, even God gave us a choice."
He said his comments were self-explanatory.
"It is apparent that God has given us a range of choices and the people of Georgia have a choice right now about who they should represent them in the Senate," he said.
"These are medical decisions, they are deeply personal," he added claiming that the topic has been too politicized.
On the other side, Walker addressed the claims that have surfaced in recent reports where a woman alleged he paid for her to have an abortion in 2009 and urged her to end a second pregnancy later. Their relationship reportedly ended when she refused to do so.
"On abortion, I'm a Christian, and I believe in life. I tell people this, Georgia is a state that respects life and I'll be a senator that protects life. And I said that was a lie and I'm not backing down," he said.
Walker has previously said the claim is false, and again in the debate called it a "lie."
Both Walker and Warnock were asked about their personal lives in the debate.
The senator and pastor was asked about an apparent lawsuit filed where his ex-wife was allegedly asking for increased child support payments, claiming she had to pay for child care on days his duties as a senator interfered with his parenting time, citing an increases in his income.
Warnock said, "I went through a divorce, like a lot of people, and while that was a painful period, what came out of that was two amazing children."
He said he had talked to his children backstage just before the debate.
"My children know that I am with them and for them and I support them in every single way that a father does," he said.
Walker meanwhile faced questions not only about the allegations he paid for an abortion, but about his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
He said he's positioned himself as a mental health advocate when asked about his diagnosis.
"I wanna tell everyone you can get help," he said.
Asked to clarify if he believes he no longer has the condition, he said, "You don't have to have treatment for it. I encourage people to talk to people. I've talked to my pastors and I continue to get help if I need help, but I don't need any help, I'm doing well."
Editor's note: This section has been updated to clarify a question a moderator asked Warnock regarding a lawsuit concerning child support.
The debate opened with questions about the economy and inflation, which an 11Alive poll has shown is the most important issue to Georgia voters ahead of the midterms. Neither candidate departed from themes they have frequently echoed throughout the campaign when speaking about the economy.
Walker said the blame for economic conditions and high inflation rests with President Joe Biden and his supporters like Warnock, and offered energy independence as one solution to fighting inflation without elaborating what effect that would have. Asked if he would cut military spending or social service spending, Walker said he would not support cuts to military spending and did not answer how he might vote on social spending legislation.
Warnock was asked if he "takes responsibility" for economic conditions and he both placed blame at corporations - in particular saying the oil and pharmaceutical industries are seeing "record profits" amid broader economic hardship - and touted his support of the Inflation Reduction Act.
He highlighted provisions in that act he helped author, including a cap on the cost of insulin and a cap on the cost of prescription drugs for senior.
As for the Act, inflation continued to rise in September despite its passage, though whether it will work long-term or not remains unclear.
Other themes and moments
Amid touching on subjects such as Russia and foreign policy, guns and access to health insurance/Medicaid expansion, both candidates dealt with more difficult moments in the debate.
Walker at one point was especially chided by moderators for producing what appeared to be a fake law enforcement badge, an evident violation of debate rules for using a prop. He was responding to Warnock, who had said "I have never pretended to be a police officer" - an allusion to reports that earlier this year that Walker's past claims of working in law enforcement were false.
Walker also denied that he supported a complete national abortion ban - a position he has taken previously. Instead he expressed his support for the provisions in Georgia's "heartbeat" abortion law.
Several times, the Republican avoided directly answering a question and turned to an oft-repeated line tying Warnock to Biden and how he had voted with the president 96% of the time. Walker made at least five references to the 96% figure in the hour of the debate.
Warnock, meanwhile, was asked about a report this week that a charity operated by the Ebenezer Baptist Church he pastors owns an apartment tower in Atlanta that has filed eviction actions against residents.
(Editor's note: A statement released by the management company for the building this week said no evictions have actually occurred since June 2020.)
The senator characterized it as an attempt to "sully the name of Martin Luther King Jr's church and John Lewis' church" made by a "desperate candidate" without at first directly refuting the allegation. Later in his answer, he said those are "false charges they've created" that "aren't true."
Moments later Walker brought the topic back, saying "he [Warnock] won't answer it, about evicting people from the church."
"We have not evicted those folks," Warnock said.
"I didn't write the article," Walker responded.
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