Senate Rivals Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock Debate in Georgia (Dreamstime)
David Morgan Friday, 14 October 2022 07:28 PM EDT
Republican Herschel Walker's bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia came to a head on Friday when the two rivals met for their sole televised debate in a contentious race that could help determine which party controls the Senate.
The battle between Walker, a onetime football star and political novice backed by former President Donald Trump, and Warnock, pastor at a historic Atlanta church who has served less than two years in the Senate, is one of the most closely watched contests in the Nov. 8 congressional elections.
The race has been rocked by media claims that Walker, who has voiced opposition to abortion without exceptions, paid for an abortion in 2009 to terminate the pregnancy of a woman he was dating and who later gave birth to one of his children. Walker has called the allegation a "flat-out lie." Reuters has not independently confirmed the claim.
But it was not clear what role the issue would play as Walker and Warnock took to their respective podiums in Savannah. Opinion polls show the race as a toss-up.
Republicans have sought to steer voter attention toward a broader issue: the need to gain control of the Senate, focusing upon concerns including inflation, crime and border security.
President Joe Biden's fellow Democrats hold slim majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. Senate control could be decided by the outcome of races in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Georgia was a reliably Republican state, with two Republican senators, until Biden beat Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff then claimed the state's two Senate seats in January 2021 run-off elections.
Two prominent Senate Republicans – Rick Scott and Tom Cotton – campaigned with Walker this week, delivering a message that Republicans need to secure a majority in the chamber to stop Biden's legislative agenda.
Scott also joined Walker in Savannah on Friday for a debate that could prove pivotal in the campaign.
"There aren't that many people who are undecided in the race," Republican strategist Charlie Black added. "But those who are undecided are looking for something to reassure them that he's capable. If Herschel does well, then that's going to help him."
Walker has been known to make confusing statements on policy issues such as climate change. He tried to lower expectations in an interview with the Savannah Morning News last month, saying: "I'm a country boy. I'm not that smart. He's a preacher."
Warnock is an eloquent speaker who is senior pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King once preached.
The Democrat is expected to stress his independence from Biden. Ahead of the debate, his campaign issued a memo that emphasized his willingness to work with conservative Senate Republicans including Ted Cruz and his readiness to stand up to the Biden administration to protect jobs at a Georgia combat training center.
If neither candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on Nov. 8, the race would be decided in a Dec. 6 run-off election.
An opinion poll conducted by the University of Georgia showed Warnock leading Walker 46% to 43% among likely voters. Other polls show a considerably tighter, more competitive race.