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What we learned from the Walker-Warnock debate

Despite his antics, Walker outperformed low expectations.

Herschel Walker Campaigns For Senator Of Georgia With Nikki Haley
Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event on September 9, 2022 in Gwinnett, Georgia.
Megan Varner/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

In a debate punctuated as much by theatrics as real issues, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) faced off against first-time Senate candidate and former professional football player Herschel Walker, highlighting the crucial role Georgia plays in the struggle over control in the Senate — which seems to be slipping out of Democrats’ grasp.

For months leading up to the debate, it was unclear whether Walker, a frequently nonsensical public speaker prone to promoting lies related to the 2020 election, his business ventures, and on Friday night, his connections with law enforcement agencies, would even debate Warnock, the Savannah-born pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, as Politico’s Natalie Allison reported.

However, Walker outperformed low expectations on the debate stage in Savannah, mainly opting to repeatedly tie Warnock to President Joe Biden by emphasizing Warnock’s voting record and by attempting to call into question Warnock’s spiritual bona fides. Warnock focused on Walker’s repeated lies, about everything from whether he had asked a former girlfriend to have an abortion to Walker’s claims that he was an FBI agent and worked for the Cobb County Police Department, despite there being no record of him working there.

Walker’s law enforcement claims led to the viral moment of the night. In response to Warnock’s point that he himself had never falsely claimed to be a member of law enforcement, Walker whipped out what his campaign later told the New York Times was an honorary sheriff’s badge, given in appreciation of community service Walker performed for one of Cobb County’s law enforcement offices. Though he claimed it was proof that he worked with police, the debate moderators admonished him to put the badge away, reminding him of the rules against props.

“If anything, it’s good that we at least got a debate in this race — in a lot of other key races across the country, it’s hard to get candidates to sit and debate anymore,” J. Miles Coleman, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which provides nonpartisan political analysis through the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Vox.

Georgia’s Senate race is one of three close midterm elections that could deliver a stronger Democratic majority — or put the chamber in Republican control. Though typically the midterm elections swing Congress to the opposite party of the current president, that’s not necessarily a given in this contest. Factors including the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the impact of former President Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party, and the Republican candidates themselves have made the contests in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, in particular, difficult to predict.

Democrats are facing tough races despite unappealing GOP candidates

Walker, the one-time high school All-American and current Trump ally, has struggled with terrible press coverage in recent weeks, primarily over allegations that he requested a former girlfriend have an abortion in 2009, and paid for the procedure when she agreed. Walker denied the incident, originally reported by the Daily Beast, in Friday’s debate. Since the original allegations came out, the same woman has also said that Walker asked her to have a second abortion in 2011. When she refused, they ended their relationship, and she told the New York Times earlier this month that Walker has barely been involved in their son’s life other than paying child support and sending occasional gifts. One of his other children, Christian Walker, who is a conservative internet celebrity, also claimed that Walker threatened his son and ex-wife with violence and engaged in extramarital affairs.

That’s in contrast with Walker’s support of what his website calls “conservative family values” and his previous position that abortion should be banned without exception. During the debate, he seemed to soften his previous stance to be more in line with what the Georgia legislature has passed — a six-week abortion ban with exceptions for the life of the pregnant person or in cases of rape or incest.

Though Walker’s personal life is rife with baggage — the abortion and abuse allegations, his struggles with dissociative identity disorder, and his dubious business claims — he widely professes his Christian faith and has the backing of Trump and conservative organizations like the Family Research Council.

Walker’s profession of faith and his narrative of redemption seem to offer cover for his past indiscretions; as with Trump, the politically prominent Christian evangelical community has proved itself willing to overlook otherwise disqualifying flaws for the sake of consolidating power. The GOP overall quickly mobilized to stand behind Walker despite the allegations, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has already booked $34 million in ad buys in Georgia, according to the New York Times.

“One of the key stories that has emerged this cycle is the quote-unquote low candidate quality on the Republican side. I think, of the Republicans who fall into that category, I think Walker might be the most palatable — I think Blake Masters, for example, he comes across as a 4chan guy,” Coleman said of the Trump-backed Arizona Republican Senate candidate. “He seemed very apocalyptic and distant. Dr. Oz as well, there’s something that comes up with him every week, and he doesn’t seem genuine.”

Oz, who is competing against Democrat and current Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats, likely can’t win that race, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, but the Nevada seat is considered a toss-up, Coleman said. “Nevada tends to be a very straight-ticket race. It’s a race where getting out your base is important.” But this contest is the first after the death of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and his signature get-out-the-vote operation may not be enough to keep Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s seat in the face of high inflation and Republican gains with Latinx voters in the state.

Whether Walker’s many failings as a candidate, as well as his latest scandals, can appreciably move the needle in Warnock’s direction remains to be seen, although recent polling indicates Warnock has a slight lead over Walker due at least in part to Walker’s recent media attention. In fact, Sabato’s Crystal Ball has the Georgia race as a toss-up as of Saturday, Coleman said.

However, there are weeks to go until the elections, and economic issues like inflation have begun to affect voters more. The consumer price index, or CPI, which measures inflation on consumer goods like groceries and fuel, showed that prices rose 8.2 percent this year through the end of September. Grocery, rent, and fuel costs will likely remain high as winter settles in, and the cost of borrowing money is set to increase as well if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates again in November. Furthermore, Walker’s numbers haven’t dipped too badly, Coleman pointed out. “He hasn’t plunged, he’s maybe lost two or three points over the last week.”

Georgia politics are shifting

Georgia, which has a Republican governor and went for Trump in 2016, voted Democratic in the 2020 election; a Biden victory, as well as the elections of Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) to replace Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, turned the state solidly purple. Although Gov. Brian Kemp is likely to defeat challenger Stacey Abrams, it’s quite possible that Georgia voters will again split their ballots as they did in 2020, Coleman told Vox.

“Something you have to keep in mind, I think, is in the Atlanta suburbs, counties like Cobb, Gwinnett, there are Democratic voters there who used to be Republicans,” Coleman said. “I think what might help Warnock there is, unlike Abrams, he’s running against a Trump-backed opponent.” Kemp, meanwhile, isn’t as closely tied with the Trump brand, which works to his advantage among this group, Coleman said. “I’m really interested to see the voters who are excited about Kemp, who are deciding whether they’re going to have to hold their nose and vote for Herschel Walker.”

Walker’s scandals “probably will make it harder for him to win outright,” Coleman told Vox, but Georgia’s election laws require state candidates to win a majority of the vote, or face a runoff as both Warnock and Ossoff did in 2020. If Warnock fails to capture that 50 percent during the November contest, Walker could conceivably gain ground before a runoff.

Walker’s appeal as a candidate is extremely limited, but, Coleman said, “he has some goodwill from his time as a football star, and that might play with older Georgians.” It’s also possible that he’ll pick up support among Black voters in rural Georgia, a group that backed Warnock in 2020. Walker’s attempt to “chip away at Warnock’s image as a preacher” was important because these areas, stretching from Columbus to Macon and up to Augusta, went stronger for Warnock than they did for Ossoff or Biden, and collecting some of those votes could be important.

Indeed, some Black voters — mostly men, as Johns Hopkins research professor Leah Wright Rigueur explained in a 2020 piece for the Atlantic — have drifted to the GOP in recent years. That’s due, according to Wright Rigueur’s research, to disillusionment with a Democratic Party that has failed to achieve anything resembling equality for Black people despite its promises and reliance on the Black community to win elections. Republicans, at least, encourage an appealing, if illusory, vision of achievable hypercapitalist wealth and independence.

Among the factors that could shift the tide in Georgia’s race — new Walker scandals, a changing voter demographic — Friday’s debate isn’t likely to be one of them, Coleman said. “Not a lot of people watch these — I think, in this case, they were planning it at the same time as a Braves game.”

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