Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent Herschel Walker faced off in a contentious debate in Savannah Friday, the first and likely the only televised debate between the two in this pivotal race.

In the hourlong meeting, Warnock largely touted bipartisan accomplishments and accused his opponent of speaking falsehoods about his campaign.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Time and time again tonight, we’ve already seen that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” Warnock said. “Just because he said something doesn’t mean it’s true.”

For his part, Walker hammered Warnock for supporting Democratic policies and President Joe Biden, while blaming them both for inflation and economic woes.

“He went to Washington to represent Joe Biden,” Walker said of Warnock. “That’s the reason we’re in the mess we’re in today, because he represents Joe Biden and not the truth for Georgia.”

The debate comes at a crucial time for both campaigns, less than 72 hours before Georgia’s three week in-person early voting period starts Monday, and as polls show one of the most contested Senate races in the country. 

Libertarian Chase Oliver, who will be on the ballot, was not invited to participate in this debate organized by Nexstar Media, but Oliver will be on stage with Warnock at an Atlanta Press Club-sponsored debate Sunday — and an empty lectern representing Walker if he declines to appear.

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in November, this race — and control of the chamber  — could be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff.

Largely absent from the debate were viral fireworks or snappy one-liners, as moderators largely prevented the candidates from talking over each other or engaging in back-and-forth in their responses.

The debate momentarily halted at one point when Walker pulled out a prop law enforcement badge to claim he previously worked in law enforcement, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported is not true.

“One thing I have not done: I’ve never pretended to be a police officer,” Warnock said just before. “And I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police.”

Walker on the offensive

Walker was the underdog headed into the night’s debate, lagging in fundraising, polling and facing yet another round of negative headlines after The Daily Beast reported the hardline anti-abortion candidate allegedly paid an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009, unsuccesfully tried to get her to have a second one and threatened to kill his ex-wife and son.

Walker denies the claims, which have not been independently verified by Georgia Public Broadcasting, and was not pressed for more details after giving a brief denial.

“I said that was a lie and I’m not backing down,” he said.

Walker also backtracked on his previous support for a total federal ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother, now saying he supports Georgia’s law that essentially bans most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many know they’re pregnant.

Even before Walker entered the race, concerns about his personal history and temperament under the harsh glare of a battleground Senate campaign dominated discussions of his potential candidacy.

On and off the trail, the former college football standout has espoused numerous falsehoods related to his personal and professional accomplishments, such as falsely claiming he graduated from the University of Georgia, served as an FBI agent or founded the largest minority-owned chicken business in the United States.

His attacks on Warnock and Democrats over the country’s economy and other policies have been overshadowed by nonsensical statements like claiming “bad air” from China floats over to pollute American “good air,” and that climate laws weren’t necessary because we have “enough trees.”

Walker told the debate audience he would support former President Donald Trump if he ran again for president in 2024, and pivoted to attacking Warnock and Biden for the way the country withdrew troops from Afghanistan.

“He’s my friend, And I won’t leave my allies, which is what Sen. Warnock and Joe Biden did in Afghanistan,” he said. “They left their allies. And right now on a foreign stage, a lot of these people don’t trust us no more.”

Warnock stays toward the political center

Midterm elections typically see the party in power fare poorly, and Republicans have used rising inflation and economic woes to paint Democrats like Warnock as responsible for a flagging economy.

Warnock, who was elected in a 2021 special election to fill the final two years of former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, has sought to tout Democrats’ accomplishments while distancing himself from less popular policies.

“There is no question that people are feeling pain at the grocery store, at the pharmacy counters,” Warnock said during tonight’s debate after being asked a question about inflation. “And while we are paying record prices, a lot of our corporate actors are seeing record profits in the oil and gas industry and the pharmaceutical industry, which is why I have stood up for ordinary, hardworking Georgia families time and time again.”

Warnock, who is the pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, has largely avoided commenting on Walker’s myriad of controversies and missteps, opting instead to largely focus his campaign ads and speeches around bipartisan initiatives and legislative victories, like capping the cost of insulin for Medicare recipients.

“We passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which had two of my provisions,” he said. “One caps the cost of prescription drugs for seniors so they don’t have to choose between buying medicine and buying groceries, and one caps the cost of insulin.”

Warnock was pressed extensively by the moderators if he would support Biden running for reelection in 2024, and he declined to answer the question.

“I’ve not spent a minute thinking about what politician should run for what in 2024,” he said.

Overall, the debate moderators shied away from longer debate on topics and follow ups about some of Georgia’s top issues, instead asking Warnock and Walker as many questions about the Atlanta Braves’ team name and “Tomahawk Chop” chant as topics like a federal minimum wage.  

A high stakes debate

This Senate race has consequences far beyond who will be representing Georgia for the next six years in Washington. Once again, Georgia elections could decide which party controls the chamber during the final two years of President Joe Biden’s first term in office.

Top Republicans have rallied to Walker’s defense in recent days, arguing that his reliable vote for conservative policy initiatives should be a higher priority for voters than his issues as a candidate.

“They know that Herschel Walker … is going to help build a Republican majority in the United States Senate,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said at a rally in Carrollton Tuesday. “And they know that Herschel Walker will be a leader in the Senate, just like he’s been a leader in sports and in business for the state of Georgia.”

Recent polling has shown between 5% and 10% of likely Republican voters say they would vote for someone other than Walker, as independent voters also favor Warnock.

Beyond holding on to the seat and Senate majority, Democrats are hoping a potential Warnock victory could benefit other tight races.

Stacey Abrams is seeking to become the country’s first Black female governor in a rematch against incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp by aiming to expand the electorate outside party’s typical base and boost turnout among Black voters, and a strong showing by Warnock at the top of the ticket could help her prevail. In Georgia’s only competitive U.S. House race, Rep. Sanford Bishop faces a serious challenge from Republican Chris West to represent the southwest corner of the state.

Early voting begins Monday.

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler/GPB News

Stephen Fowler is political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.