When Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker met to debate in the already contentious Georgia Senate race, all the focus was on how personal allegations against Walker would roil the first – and likely only – debate in the campaign.
The allegations that Walker paid for a woman to terminate her pregnancy and then, two years later, encouraged the same woman to have the procedure a second time, however, were just a blip in the hour-long contest, which instead centered on Warnock’s ties to President Joe Biden, the vast differences between the two candidates on abortion and even, however briefly, Walker’s use of what appeared to be a sheriff’s badge.
Walker continued to deny the allegations about him – calling them “a lie” – and Warnock, as he has on the campaign trail, did not engage on the controversy, instead choosing to question his Republican opponent’s relationship to the truth.
“We will see time and time again, as we have already seen, that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” Warnock said. “And just because he says something doesn’t mean it’s true.”
For Walker, the debate was as much about touting his own candidacy as it was about tying Warnock to Biden, who was invoked early and often. His effort, in the closing moments, to assuage fence-sitting voters about his readiness to serve also included a jab at Warnock and Biden.
“For those of you who are concerned about voting for me, a non-politician, I want you to think about the damage politicians like Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock have done to this country,” Walker said.
Here are five takeaways from Friday’s debate:
Biden wasn’t on the stage Friday night, but Walker tried repeatedly to convince viewers that the Democratic President was ostensibly there with his Democratic opponent.
From the outset of the event, Walker repeatedly invoked Biden, hoping to tie his Democratic opponent to the President’s low approval ratings.
“This race isn’t about me. It is about what Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have done to you and your family,” Walker said at the top of the debate.
Later, when pressed on voter fraud in the 2020 election, he added, “Did President Biden win? President Biden won, and Sen. Warnock won. That’s the reason I decided to run.”
He then synthesized his point: “I am running because he and Joe Biden are the same.”
Warnock did little to distance himself from Biden, even at times touting the legislation he passed with the President’s help. But during a question on foreign policy, he took the chance to note a specific time he stood up to the Biden administration.
“I am glad we are standing up to Putin’s aggression and we have to continue to stand up, which is why I stood up to the Biden administration when it suggested we should close the Savanah Combat Readiness Training Center,” Warnock said. “I told the President that was the exact wrong thing to do at the exact wrong time. … We kept that training center open.”
Walker went back to his message in response: “He didn’t stand up. He had laid down every time it came around.”
“It is evident,” said a somewhat exasperated Warnock, “that he has a point that he tried to make time and time again.”
Headed into the debate, the focus was on how Walker – and arguably less predictably, Warnock – would address the accusations that the Republican candidate allegedly paid for a woman to terminate her pregnancy and then, two years later, encouraged the same woman to have the procedure a second time.
Walker did what he has done repeatedly as the allegations roiled an already contentious Senate race: Label the allegations a lie.
“As I said, that is a lie,” Walker said in response to a question from the moderator. “I put it in a book, one thing about my life, I have been very transparent. Not like the senator, he has hid things.”
Walker added: “I said that is a lie and I am not backing down. And we have Sen. Warnock, people that would do anything and say anything for this seat. But I am not going to back down.”
CNN has not independently verified the allegations about Walker.
Warnock, as he has done previously, did not address the allegations, instead choosing to let Walker fight them off without pushing them himself.
Instead, the senator took a broad approach, focusing on Walker’s “problem with the truth” and less on the specific allegations.
The candidates also clashed on abortion rights more generally, with Walker insisting he did not support a federal ban, in contrast to past statements, and pointing to the state’s restrictive “heartbeat” law. The law prohibits abortions as soon as early cardiac activity is detectable, which can be as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
“On abortion, I’m a Christian. I believe in life. Georgia is a state that respects life,” Walker said.
The Georgia law makes exceptions for cases of rape or incest, pending a timely police report, and in some cases where the pregnant person’s health is at risk.
Before the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, state law had allowed abortions up to 20 weeks.
Warnock, who supports abortion rights, repeated an argument he’s made on the trail: “A patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped for a woman, her doctor and the US government. … I trust women more than I trust politicians.”
Walker then shot back, invoking Warnock’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
“He told me Black lives matter… If Black lives matter, why are you not protecting those babies? And instead of aborting those babies, why aren’t you baptizing those babies?,” Walker said.
Warnock, as he did throughout the debate, didn’t directly answer Walker’s provocation. Instead, he repeated his position.
“There are enough politicians piling into the rooms of patients,” the senator said, “and I don’t plan to join them.”
Georgia is one of 12 states not to expand Medicaid and currently has an estimated 1.5 million uninsured residents.
Walker, when asked by the moderator if the federal government should step in to make sure everyone has access to health care, began a confusing non-response.
“Well, right now, people have coverage for health care. It’s according to what type of coverage do you want. Because if you have an able-bodied job, you’re going to have health care,” he said. “But everyone else – have health care is the type of health care you’re going to get. And I think that is the problem.”
Walker continued to say that Warnock wants people to “depend on the government,” while he wants “you to get off the government health care and get on the health care he’s got.”
To note: Warnock, as a US Senator, is on a government health care plan.
Walker also gave a puzzling response to Warnock’s attack on his opposition to federal legislation capping the price of insulin for people with diabetes.
“I believe in reducing insulin, but at the same time, you have to eat right,” Walker said. “Unless you have eating right, insulin is doing you no good. So you have to get food prices down and you got to get gas prices down so they can go and get insulin.”
Warnock responded by telling viewers who require the drug that Walker was, in effect, blaming them for their struggles accessing it.
Warnock, on the subject of his pledge to close the Medicaid gap, was asked how he would pay for it.
“This is not a theoretical issue for me,” he replied, invoking the story of a nurse in a trauma ward who lost coverage when she became sick and, as he put it, died “for lack of health care.”
“Georgia needs to expand Medicaid,” Warnock continued. “It costs us more not to expand. What we’re doing right now is we’re subsidizing health care in other states” – a reference to the state’s refusal to accept federal funds that residents already pay into.
The debate within the debate over Warnock’s support for police, in which the senator pointed to his support for legislation that backed smaller departments, was briefly derailed when Walker pulled out what appeared to be a police badge.
The moderator quickly admonished Walker, reminding him that props were not allowed onstage.
“You have a prop,” the surprised moderator said. “That is not allowed, sir.”
Moments earlier, Warnock – in response to Walker’s claims that he has “called (police officers) names” and caused “morale” to plummet – said that his opponent “has a problem with the truth.”
Warnock then hit Walker with a callback to a more than two-decade-old police report in which the Republican discussed exchanging gunfire with police and a subsequent false claim from Walker that he previously served in law enforcement.
“One thing that I haven’t done is I haven’t pretended to be a police officer and I’ve never, ever threatened a shootout with police,” he said.
Warnock also argued that his support for greater scrutiny of police didn’t undermine his support for law enforcement.
“You can support police officers, as I’ve done, through the COPS program, through the invest-to-protect program, while at the same time, holding police officers, like all professions, accountable,” he said.