SAVANNAH, Ga. — Republican Herschel Walker won a moral victory by avoiding disaster at his sole televised debate with Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) Friday.
In the process, the former football star will have given his party hope that he can overcome a checkered campaign to prevail in the race, which could plausibly determine control of the Senate.
But Walker also climbed further out on a limb regarding the story that has dominated the race’s closing stages — the accusation from the mother of one of his children that he had previously paid for her to have an abortion.
Walker, who campaigns on an emphatically anti-abortion platform, again insisted without equivocation that the woman’s story was “a lie.” The tactic may be effective — but only so long as it is not disproven by any new evidence.
Warnock holds a small lead in polling averages, but Georgia retains an underlying Republican lean despite narrow Democratic victories during the 2020 election cycle.
This year, it is one of three states, along with Pennsylvania and Nevada, most likely to flip in the battle for the Senate.
Walker put in a much sharper performance than Democrats and many pundits expected. He was helped by having set a notably low bar for himself — and by the commonly held belief among liberals that he would be hopelessly exposed on the debate stage.
“I’m not that smart,” the Republican candidate said last month. “He [Warnock] is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate.”
Walker more than avoided embarrassment. He jabbed back at Warnock — prompting occasional applause and cheers from his sometimes-raucous supporters in the audience — and appeared at times to rattle the incumbent senator, who won a narrow victory in a January 2021 runoff.
Walker attacked Warnock repeatedly for answers that the Republican contended were evasive. At times, Walker had a point — as when the incumbent senator skated away from questions on whether he believes there should be any restrictions on abortion or, even more conspicuously, whether he wants President Biden to run again in 2024.
“I have not spent a minute thinking about what politician should run for what in 2024,” Warnock claimed.
The answer was emblematic of a much broader theme in the debate — and one that animates a number of battleground races this year.
At issue is whether the midterms should be seen as a straight up-or-down referendum on the first two years of the Biden presidency.
Warnock was at pains to emphasize that Georgia voters have a simple choice — himself or Walker as their senator. The Democrat argued that the former football star was not “ready” to fill that role.
But Walker clearly wants the election to be about a third person: Biden.
His most frequent refrain in the debate was asserting that Warnock’s voting record shows him backing Biden “96 percent” of the time. Later, he hit Warnock for allegedly failing to “stand up” to Biden.
Warnock, for his part, emphasized his willingness to work with Republicans, adding: “The people of Georgia hired me to represent them regardless of who is in the White House.”
As a matter of political necessity, Warnock’s approach can hardly be faulted.
One recent poll, from Quinnipiac University, showed Biden’s job performance winning the approval of only 44 percent of likely voters in Georgia, whereas 53 percent disapproved.
But Warnock’s stance also requires him to thread a fine needle, keeping his distance from Biden and reaching out to independent voters while still revving up his party’s base voters.
Warnock did have strong moments in the debate, especially highlighting tangible achievements from his brief time in the Senate so far. He emphasized his push for capping the cost of insulin, for example, a quest that was reflected in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Referring to Walker’s declaration that he would have voted against that bill, which Biden signed into law in mid-August, Warnock insisted: “He should tell the people of Georgia why they should have expensive insulin.”
The same topic witnessed one of Walker’s shakier moments, when he seemed to suggest the price of insulin would not be an issue if people could afford to eat better — a point that landed as both diversionary and insensitive.
There was only one bizarre moment at the debate, which was hosted by Nexstar Media, The Hill’s parent company.
Walker, who has been widely reported as exaggerating his involvement with law enforcement, responded to an attack on that topic from Warnock by pulling out a badge of some description.
The specifics of the badge were unclear, and the tactic earned Walker an admonishment from one of the debate’s co-moderators for the unauthorized use of a “prop.”
Still, Republicans will be fine knowing that there was no more melodramatic moment.
Walker stayed in the game on Friday night.
He, and the GOP, will settle for that.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.