Herschel Walker’s debate performance scores points for his campaign

An AJC analysis of the U.S. Senate debate between the GOP nominee and incumbent Raphael Warnock
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) shakes hands with Republican candidate Herschel Walker prior to the Nexstar Georgia Senate Debate at District Live at Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., on Friday, October 14, 2022.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) shakes hands with Republican candidate Herschel Walker prior to the Nexstar Georgia Senate Debate at District Live at Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., on Friday, October 14, 2022.

SAVANNAH — As the sole debate between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker wound down, the former football star’s aides danced to Usher’s “Yeah” in a crowded watch party in the JW Marriot complex.

They felt they had good reason to celebrate. If the Friday showdown was a make-or-break moment for Walker, as some analysts predicted it would be, the Republican didn’t snap. And to some of his supporters, the hourlong debate forged him into a stronger contender.

Among them was Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition head who mused that Walker would top Gov. Brian Kemp’s 2018 total among evangelicals — a gutty prediction given the allegations that Walker paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion 13 years ago despite his opposition to the procedure.

Walker entered the debate facing enormous pressure to quell concerns that he was unfit for office fueled by a spate of damaging reports about Walker’s history, including his violent behavior toward women and the abortion reports, which he again rejected on Friday.

He was desperate to stem the tide of split-ticket Republican voters who back Kemp’s reelection campaign but were wavering over whether to cast a ballot for Walker. His answer, time and again, was to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and his 38% approval rating.

“This race isn’t about me,” Walker said. “It’s about what Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have done to you and your family.”

While Friday’s debate performance didn’t erase Walker’s vulnerabilities, it may quiet some GOP fears that the party’s most reliable voters were on the verge of abandoning him. Walker came out punchy and aggressive, interjecting frequently as he tried to knock Warnock off message. Warnock was more cautious and deliberate, though he also gave Democrats reason to cheer.

Walker’s attempt at a dramatic made-for-TV moment ended abruptly when a moderator admonished the Republican for violating the debate’s rules by pulling out an honorary police badge.

Herschel Walker pulls out a badge at his debate with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Credit: Screenshot

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Credit: Screenshot

That was in response to Warnock’s sharpest jab of the night, which took place when the Democrat pointedly noted that unlike Walker he had “never pretended to be a police officer and I’ve never threatened a shootout with police.” It was a reference to a 21-year-old police report and the Republican’s false claim he served in law enforcement.

In another exchange, Walker downplayed Warnock’s efforts to cap the price of insulin at $35 by saying Georgians suffering with diabetes who are worried about the rising cost of the vital drug need to “eat right.”

Yet for most of the hourlong debate, Walker managed to avoid criticism that focused on his personal baggage, including his history of violent behavior, previously unacknowledged children and family life that have turned this contest into an international story.

A softening?

The Republican benefited from low expectations, mostly because of a history of gaffes and meandering remarks on the campaign trail. He also worked to downplay his chances against Warnock, pitting himself as a “country boy” pitted against the polished pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Democrats didn’t take Walker lightly. The Republican hired a debate coach, beefed up his operation with veterans of major campaigns and spent hours each week in “policy time” with wonks from Washington, including several Republican U.S. senators.

Part of his debate strategy was aimed at softening his image. Walker has long had a somewhat contradictory position on abortion — his allies would say nuanced — by supporting a “total ban” even in the case of rape or incest while also saying it should be left to states to decide.

Herschel Walker, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Sen. Burt Jones pose for a picture.

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During Friday’s debate, he tried to overhaul his position. Walker denied his past support for a national abortion ban and endorsed the restrictions that Kemp signed into law. That newly enacted measure bans abortions as early as six weeks but includes exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.

And Walker backtracked on his stance on Donald Trump’s election fraud lies, even as he said he would support a comeback bid by the former president. Where once Walker said Biden couldn’t have won the 2020 election, on Friday he had a different answer.

“Did President Biden win? President Biden won and Sen. Warnock won,” he said. “That’s the reason I decided to run.”

At other times, Walker seemed intent on shoring up his base, reflecting his campaign’s tilt toward hard-right issues.

When Warnock gave his standard answer to a question about restricting abortion, saying the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, Walker shot back a prepared response tailor-made to invigorate conservatives: “Did he not mention that there’s a baby in that room as well?”

Meanwhile, Warnock’s policy-driven approach hit snags as he struggled to answer key questions, including whether the Supreme Court should be expanded and if he wanted Biden go seek a second term in 2024.

In this photo from March 26, 2022, Herschel Walker, the front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“I’ve not spent a minute thinking about what politicians should run for what in 2024,” Warnock said of the latter query, nodding to the start of early voting in Georgia: “You’re asking me about who’s going to run in ‘24? The people of Georgia get to decide who’s going to be their senator in three days.”

When compared to Walker’s more direct answer to an accompanying question about whether he supports a Trump run in 2024 — the Republican quickly confirmed he would, saying he’d never betray a friend — Warnock’s dodge seemed even more glaring.

Still, that answer exemplified Warnock’s balancing act — keeping his party’s base energized while simultaneously appealing to swing voters uncomfortable with Walker.

The Democrat likely didn’t do anything during the debate to endanger his grip on liberal voters, but Walker may have proven himself to some of those wavering independents.

“Herschel Walker had one mission tonight: make Kemp Republicans comfortable with him and stop ticket splitting,” said Fred Hicks, a Democratic strategist. “It feels like he did that.”

Upcoming debates

Congressional races will be featured in debates scheduled today from the Atlanta Press Club and GPB. The Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series starts at 10 a.m. with the 6th Congressional District candidates and continues through the day, concluding with a Senate debate starting at 7 p.m. Although invited, Herschel Walker is not expected to attend the debate featuring U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Libertarian Chase Oliver. The series continues Monday, including Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams facing off at 7 p.m.