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Herschel Walker, Raphael Warnock debate: Highlights from the Georgia race face-off

These were the biggest moments and takeaways from the U.S. Senate nominees' first and only debate ahead of the midterm elections.

Herschel Walker and Sen. Raphael Warnock faced off tonight in their first — and only — debate ahead of Georgia's U.S. Senate election next month.

Walker, the Republican nominee, has been dogged by controversy since the start of his campaign as he seeks to unseat Warnock, the Democratic incumbent.

Our contributors tonight were MSNBC Daily editors Hayes Brown, Jarvis DeBerry and James Downie, as well as MNSBC Daily columnist Noah Rothman.

353d ago / 12:50 AM UTC

How will the debate impact the polls? Well, keep this in mind.

The bar was set quite low for Walker, who has described himself as “not a smart man” and has been caught lying multiple times throughout his campaign. It was expected that if Walker could get through the debate without engaging in a series of headline-making gaffes, he could count it as a success.

But what impact will the debate actually have on the candidates’ positions in the polls? It’s hard to say. Keep in mind: A poll of likely Georgia voters published Wednesday showed the abortion allegation against Walker did not lead to a major shift in the polls.

The poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, showed Warnock leading by 7 percentage points, 52% to 45%. (The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.) It was nearly unchanged from last month, which showed Walker trailing by 6 percentage points.

So will Walker’s at times coherent performance give him a boost in the polls? Or could Warnock’s steady delivery cement the incumbent’s lead? Only time will tell, but the abortion scandal suggests voters have already made up their minds.

353d ago / 12:35 AM UTC

Fact-check: Walker says Warnock votes with Biden 96% of the time

Walker repeatedly claimed that Warnock has voted in line with Biden's position on legislative issues 96% of the time — and he’s right!

According to Five Thirty Eight, the Democratic senator has voted with the president 96.4% of the time, as of Sept. 28.

It remains to be seen whether that’s as sick of a burn as Walker thinks it is. Georgia’s a purple state, meaning it doesn’t lean too heavily in one political direction. What’s for sure is how high the stakes are in this election. Control of the Senate could come down to this race.

353d ago / 12:24 AM UTC

Why Warnock likely decided against sounding too ‘proper’

Weeks before this debate, Walker described himself as “not that smart” and made a point of mentioning Warnock’s nice suits. Yes, that was a way of lowering expectations, but it was also an effective way of calling attention to a divide that persists in the South: the divide between the educated Black people who speak what’s called “proper” and the less educated who might be considered more common, less refined people.

To be clear, the description “proper” in the Black South is rarely used as a compliment. It’s meant to convey arrogance and condescension. Warnock, who has the rhetorical skills one would expect of a southern Black Baptist pastor (one who uses those skills in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, no less) seemed aware of coming across as condescending while debating an opponent who struggles to fluently express himself.  

Near the end of the debate, Walker, whose rural Southern accent and phrasing was quite pronounced, again made a point of bringing up Warnock’s “smooth talk,” but there was nothing particularly smooth about Warnock’s presentation. Maybe it’s because he was confronted with some tough questions he didn’t want to answer — including questions about his church evicting poor people and his ex-wife questioning his parenting — but as someone from the Black rural South who was always reminded that I was “proper,” my money’s on Warnock deciding that sounding too well spoken while next to Walker wouldn’t be a good look.

Herschel Walker, Raphael Warnock.
Herschel Walker, Raphael Warnock.Getty Images ; AP file
353d ago / 12:21 AM UTC

Walker and Warnock aside, the debate format is broken

I am so torn on this, so forgive me while I work out my feelings via blog post. On the one hand, I think it’s important that candidates give voters the chance to see them side by side, debating how they view the role that would be granted to them and the policies they’d work to enact while in office. Refusals to debate your opponent are often rightly seen as a sign of weakness and inability to stand by your positions under scrutiny.

On the other hand, the modern political debate format yields very few actual insights. The performance we saw from Warnock and Walker wasn’t the worst example I’ve ever sat through, but the idea that one hour is enough time to cover the breadth and depth of issues that the American people face, and U.S. senators are required to engage with, is madness. The whiplash between topics, the inability to have a proper back-and-forth, the lack of fact-checking as things that are patently untrue are said, none of it really speaks to the seriousness of the job these men are asking to perform.

Instead, the brevity of the format doesn’t allow for much of an impact beyond judgments on the aesthetics on display, the oratorical stylings of each candidate, and the barest bones of where each stands on the bills they would either seek to enact or try to prevent in the Senate. America really deserves higher-quality debates if we’re going to keep this tradition going. And I know we’re in an era where attention spans are dwindling, but let’s be real: The sound bites we got tonight won’t even play well when chopped up on TikTok.

353d ago / 12:17 AM UTC

353d ago / 12:14 AM UTC

Walker's performance? Not bad, but maybe not enough.

Hershel Walker had the most to prove in tonight’s debate. For the most part, he proved that he is, indeed, Hershel Walker.

There was plenty of media catnip in Walker’s performance — from producing a police badge and being scolded for bringing a “prop” to the debate stage to his bizarre implication that insulin-takers owe their lots to poor nutritional habits. Those are the clips that are going to make the rounds. But in between those moments, Walker held his own. At times, he even drew blood from his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock.

According to Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein, even Democrats are surprised by Walker’s failure to spontaneously combust:

Walker is going to be the beneficiary of the low expectations he has cultivated for himself, yes. But there were also moments where Walker turned in more than serviceable answers to substantive policy questions, and his folksy demeanor contrasted favorably with Warnock’s polish. Warnock looked like a politician in an outsider’s year. It may not be enough to push Walker over the finish line in November, but it may very well be enough to force a runoff election in December.

353d ago / 12:13 AM UTC

In the end, Walker didn’t rise to the occasion. But...

It was clear almost from the beginning why Walker has been doing his darndest to lower expectations ahead of this debate. The stumbles and strange moments that might have derailed another candidate’s chances were instead by and large ho-hum — prop badge aside.

As for Warnock, the Democrat and his campaign clearly feel comfortable where they are in the polls — he played it safe on virtually every answer this evening. The hour summed up both candidates well to voters who are just tuning in, but it’s unlikely to change the trajectory of the race — and that will suit Democrats just fine.

Georgia Senate Candidate Raphael Warnock Holds A Campaign Rally In Columbus
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., spoke to supporters Saturday in Columbus, Georgia.Megan Varner / Getty Images
353d ago / 11:59 PM UTC

Walker does not understand how employer health care works

The list of things Walker does not understand appears to be long, but apparently one of the items on that list is health care. When asked whether Georgia should accept federal funding via a Medicare expansion to close the “coverage gap,” Walker instead said that people should be working to make sure that everyone has good health care.

Specifically, he said “if you have an able-bodied job, you have health care.” That … makes no sense, when you consider how many people who are working are still uninsured. A major reason why working Americans are uninsured is because either they are unable to afford the plans available or their employer doesn’t offer subsidized coverage because of the hours they work. Walker then accused Warnock of wanting people to be dependent on the government instead of independent, which is … wild.

Georgia GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker makes remarks during a campaign stop at Battle Lumber Co. on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Wadley, Ga. Walker's appearance was his first following reports that a woman who said Walker paid for her 2009 abortion is actually mother of one of his children - undercutting Walker's claims he didn't know who she was.
Georgia GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker makes remarks during a campaign stop at Battle Lumber Co., in Wadley, Ga., on Thursday.Meg Kinnard / AP
353d ago / 11:58 PM UTC

Walker’s no-solution solution

Before tonight’s clash, I asked whether Walker could debate the issues. As Hayes Brown touches on, Walker’s answers on health care are showing that the answer is “no.”

Asked how he would increase access to doctors and hospitals for Georgians, Walker blamed Warnock for not already doing it, then suggested he would meet with hospital administrators. No real ideas, no concrete policies. If he does want to cross the finish line first, it’ll be on vibes alone.

Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker holds a campaign event on Sept. 9, 2022, in Gwinnett, Ga.
Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker holds a campaign event, in Gwinnett, Ga., on Sept. 9, 2022.Megan Varner / Getty Images file
353d ago / 11:51 PM UTC

353d ago / 11:48 PM UTC

'It’s not a prop!': Walker’s most surreal moment yet

If you were caught lying that you used to be an FBI agent, you probably wouldn’t double down on that lie on television. But you are not Herschel Walker.

When Warnock pointed out that his opponent had pretended to be law enforcement (specifically, an FBI agent and a Cobb County sheriff), Walker flashed an honest-to-goodness sheriff’s badge — or at least a replica.

An already bizarre moment got even stranger when one of the moderators interrupted Walker to remind him that the debate rules prohibited props.

“It’s not a prop,” Walker protested. “It’s real!” 

Truly one of the weirdest political moments in years.

353d ago / 11:45 PM UTC

Walker gets the better of Warnock on student loan forgiveness

When it comes to Joe Biden’s transference of some private student loan debt onto taxpayers, the issue is complicated. Polling suggests that the president’s executive action is popular in Georgia, but tonight’s moderators didn’t focus on the ends alone; they also asked about the constitutional propriety of the president’s means.

When asked why Congress didn’t take this action, given its constitutional authority over the national purse, Warnock replied with a non sequitur, observing that the president had already acted, which sidesteps the issue. To his credit, Walker explained why it was his view that the president didn’t have that authority, as well as the unfairness of the measure. “I didn’t co-sign for anyone’s loan,” Walker closed.

To this, Warnock had a parry ready to go. “It’s interesting to me that people who have been crying about student debt relief,” he said, are not also frustrated by the fact that so many Americans took pandemic-related PPP loans. “Senator, you got a PPP loan,” Warnock said to applause. The audience’s response papers over the fact that Warnock made Walker’s point for him.

PPP loans were structured by Congress to be accessible as possible with minimum oversight to stave off economic collapse stemming from the artificial limits on economic activity associated with the pandemic. But, in stark contrast to Biden’s executive action on student loans, it was the legislature that appropriated and disbursed those funds. Maybe voters don’t put much stock in that distinction, but the courts almost certainly will.

353d ago / 11:44 PM UTC

What the heck was that minimum wage moment??

That was … weird. The candidates were asked to raise their hands if they support an increase in the federal minimum wage. And neither raised their hands? Walker’s answer — which I have honestly mostly forgotten if I’m being honest — at least tracked as far as GOP orthodoxy goes. 

Warnock’s thought was extra strange given that he  literally voted for an amendment that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $15/hour in 2021. He tried to explain that he believed in a “livable” wage, but hedged it by saying that the current labor market was making improvements in the wages people are able to earn. Warnock added that he has been talking to the business community and would be watching to see if that livable wage can be achieved. 

I am forced to disagree with the senator as far as the way that real wages have been affected by the current labor market and the idea that the business community doesn’t need the federal government’s intervention to pay more than the federal minimum, which hasn’t been raised since 2009.

353d ago / 11:41 PM UTC

Republicans love to scorn Black lives matter ... until they don't

There are people who won’t say “Black Lives Matter” under any circumstance but think it’s a winning argument when the question of abortion is on the table. That’s what Walker did when he tried to shame Warnock just now.  He’s accusing the pastor’s pro-choice stances as inconsistent with the belief that Black lives really matter.

But during that segment of the debate, Warnock correctly called out the shame of America’s sky-high maternal mortality, a rate that disproportionately impacts Black women. Warnock’s question was a parry: How does the position that abortion shouldn’t be allowed even when the life of the mother is at risk suggest that Black lives matter?

353d ago / 11:35 PM UTC

Warnock defends Biden’s student debt relief order

There’s no doubt that Warnock has made pushing student debt relief a major focus of his time in the Senate. He stood by the president’s decision to offer relief to students with $10,000 in student loans and emphasized the additional $10,000 in relief that students who reserved Pell grants would get.

He was also asked why this should be done via executive action instead of Congress acting. Warnock made the point that the Congress should act, because we “shouldn’t do this again ten years from now.”

You have to wonder though why neither the moderators nor Warnock pointed out that the reason why there’s been no action in Congress is Republican opposition to any bill that would cancel out student loans.

Students walk through Harvard Yard, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on April 27, 2022.
Students walk through Harvard Yard, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on April 27, 2022.Charles Krupa / AP file
353d ago / 11:29 PM UTC

Walker’s abortion struggles continue

As expected, Walker was asked about his recent abortion scandal, and, as expected, he struggled with the facts. First, he called the reports he’d paid for a girlfriend’s abortion “a lie,” despite having already had to backtrack from his claim that he didn’t know the woman, who is reportedly the mother of one of his children.

Then, after Warnock said that a hospital room is too small for a doctor, a woman and the government. Walker tried to play “gotcha” by arguing that taxpayers are paying for that abortion. The truth is 34 states and the District of Columbia all but prohibit using federal funds for abortions outside of exceptions of rape, incest or the mother’s life.

353d ago / 11:27 PM UTC

Herschel Walker has thoughts about your eating habits

Georgia’s U.S. Senate debate opened with a question on “the economy,” which both candidates recognized as a euphemism for inflation and treated as such. Warnock dutifully touted the Democratic Party’s record on the subject, and he focused primarily on the Inflation Reduction Act.

Notably, Warnock failed to explain how the Inflation Reduction Act reduces inflation. Instead, he noted that the law imposes price controls on the pharmaceutical industry, which only further distorts the marketplace and may actually contribute to inflation. Even if he preferred to avoid the economics of the issue, Warnock’s opponent might have noted that the law has failed to lower medical care costs, which increased by a full percentage point in September. But Walker didn’t.

Instead, Walker focused like a laser on Warnock’s invocation of insulin and Democrats’ legislative effort to artificially set the drug’s costs. But Walker didn’t talk about that legislation. Rather, he appeared to admonish Georgians who need insulin therapy to manage their blood sugar levels. “I believe in reducing insulin,” Walker said, “but at the same time, you gotta eat right.” Presumably, Americans who struggle with diabetes have encountered this advice before, but Georgia’s voters are not looking to elect a nutritional therapist.

Republicans watching tonight’s debate couldn’t have found Walker’s first parry in this debate reassuring.

353d ago / 11:22 PM UTC

Surprise: Walker says Biden won in 2020

The second question posted to Walker was a blunt one: “Do you believe that Joe Biden won the election in 2020?” In potentially the most surprising thing I’ll probably hear tonight, Walker after going off on a tangent, quickly said that “Biden won and Warnock won.” Warnock’s win is why he decided to run, he added.

That can’t sit well with Donald Trump, who endorsed Walker during the GOP primary in Georgia earlier this year. Weirdly, Walker has previously claimed that Trump never said the 2020 election was stolen, which is a lie about a lie?

353d ago / 11:21 PM UTC

Both candidates say they'll accept election results. We'll see.

The moderators asked Warnock and Walker whether they'll accept the results of the election. Both said yes. However, time will tell whether Walker will follow in Trump's footsteps should he lose next month and baselessly cry voter fraud.

353d ago / 11:17 PM UTC

Walker’s ‘energy independence’ answer is a red herring

Walker was asked to give one specific policy that he would advocate in the Senate to bring down inflation. While I didn’t hear a specific policy in there, he did say that he’d push for America to become “energy independent again.”

That’s a popular GOP talking point but one that does not really make a lot of sense when you think about how global oil prices work. I’ve written before about how Republicans are pushing the idea that Democrats are preventing the oil industry from flipping a switch that would allow for more oil to be pumped in the U.S. immediately.

Walker also added that it’s a national security issue because “we giving our energy up to enemies who don’t like us.” I … honestly am unsure what he means by this one but have to move on to the next weird thing he’s said, so can’t spend too much time pondering it.

353d ago / 11:13 PM UTC

Herschel Walker seems confused about Senate location

The debate is underway! After the candidates gave their opening statements, they went back and forth on their plans to tackle inflation.

In response to Warnock's comments, Walker repeated over and over: "You're in Washington" — an apparent attempt to suggest Warnock isn't representing Georgians by ... doing his job in the Senate in Washington?

353d ago / 11:03 PM UTC

If Walker wins, most of Georgia's Black voters won’t be happy

There’s a difference between a Black elected official and a Black elected official that Black people helped get elected.  Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, both Republicans, are examples of Black men elected statewide in the South who were not and are not generally supported by Black voters there. 

While some find those Republicans’ victories celebratory for Black people, others view their wins as illustrative of the difficulty Black people in the Blackest part of the country have putting their candidates of choice in office. That’s what the Voting Rights Act was about: not necessarily the election of Black people, but Black people having a fair shot electing the candidates of their choosing. Warnock is a Black elected official in the South who checks those two boxes: elected statewide and elected with the strong support of Black people. Yes, there are Black people who support Herschel Walker, but if he wins, most of Georgia’s Black voters won’t be happy.

Georgia Republican Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event, in Carrollton, Ga., on Oct. 11, 2022. Walker is running for election against Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-GA).
Georgia Republican Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event, in Carrollton, Ga., on Tuesday.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images
353d ago / 10:45 PM UTC

It’s been a busy two years for Warnock

Warnock first won his seat in Jan. 2021 in a special election to replace retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. Because of how the Senate’s class system works, victory only granted Warnock the remaining two years of Isakson’s term before facing voters again. 

Since then, he’s thrown himself into a number of issues important to Democrats, including protecting voting rights, canceling student loan debt, and capping insulin costs. Some of those have had more success than others so far, but Warnock has leaned into both pushing his colleagues and President Biden to act on progressive priorities while using campaign events to tout bipartisan wins that he’s racked up.

It’s a decent record, considering he’s only had a third of the time most incumbents have to burnish their credentials.

353d ago / 10:38 PM UTC

Lindsey Graham's defense of Walker is, uh, creative

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham never ceases to amaze when it comes digging up nonsensical and downright bizarre defenses for his party's embarrassments.

The South Carolina senator loves to bring up Democrats' treatment of Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings — and Walker's abortion scandal apparently offered him the opportunity to do so.

“If you’re waiting on the media to tell you about what’s going on in Georgia ... you’re going wait a hell of a long time,” Graham said on Fox News. “Remember Kavanaugh?”

As Steve Benen wrote for MaddowBlog yesterday:

"As a matter of fact, I do remember Kavanaugh. I remember the future justice assuring senators he had no intention of overturning Roe v. Wade. I remember in early September 2018, when Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont stated unequivocally that he believed Kavanaugh had given “untruthful testimony, under oath and on the record.” ...

"But even if we remember all of these details from the recent past, what’s less clear is what Kavanaugh has to do with Walker."

Read Steve's full story below:

353d ago / 10:17 PM UTC

The many scandals plaguing Herschel Walker

Walker's campaign has been dogged by controversy from the moment it began. Here's a sampling of the scandals:

353d ago / 9:59 PM UTC

For Warnock, voting rights is a defining issue

In an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes last month, Warnock highlighted voting access as a key issue he's eager to stay focused on should he win re-election next month.

"I believe a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children," Warnock said. "And the right and access to the ballot is fundamental. It's part of what makes our system so great. It's something that I've fought for long before I came to the Senate, and it's the reason why O know that I still have work to do in the United States Senate to protect this core, core value."

Watch the clip below:

353d ago / 9:29 PM UTC

Walker's performative hypermasculinity appeals to many in the GOP

Walker is one of several MAGA-loving Black candidates or lawmakers who lean into toxic masculinity in an attempt to woo voters.

As Ja'han Jones wrote for The ReidOut Blog today:

"By playing up their personas as right-wing firebrands, they avoid having to answer for the fact their policies would largely do nothing to stem inequality that’s long plagued Black people. In fact, in many cases, their policies would only make things worse.

"Instead, they lean into purported toughness, which they stereotypically express through violence, hypermasculinity, misogyny and/or transphobia. And in economic terms, this toughness is portrayed as rugged individualism that amounts to severing Black people from government assistance or government participation whatsoever — a key desire for Republicans, which is why Black conservatives like Walker appeal to them."

Read Ja'han's full story below:

353d ago / 9:11 PM UTC

Republicans pretend Walker is somehow the godly choice

Republicans using Walker to challenge Warnock is not unlike the religious right emerging in the ‘70s and ‘80s to challenge the successes of the civil rights movement. Warnock pastors Ebenezer Baptist Church, which Martin Luther King Jr. co-pastored with his father.  But Walker and his supporters routinely suggest that the Republican challenger — despite a past littered with outrageous lies, abuse toward women, accusations of being an absentee father, and at least one abortion he allegedly funded — is the godly choice in next month’s election.

The civil rights movement was largely driven by Black church folks who refused to see their  spiritual salvation as a substitute for laws treating them as first-class citizens. The religious right opposed that movement and it has opposed every progressive movement that has emerged since. That is not to say that Warnock is a modern-day King. It is to say that the right is the same. It never sits idly by when church folks link their faith to social activism. 

After Warnock was elected, the right responded with a so-called religious candidate whose mendacity may come in second only to Donald Trump’s. The scriptures say “The truth shall make you free.” But in this case, the GOP is hoping that, in the Senate, Walker’s lies will make them the majority.

353d ago / 9:07 PM UTC

The issues top of mind for Georgia voters tonight

“I’m ready to debate him any time, any day,” Walker told Fox News this summer about a potential face-off with Warnock. But is he? There likely won’t be much debating between the two over Walker’s recent scandals — Warnock has stayed deliberately quiet on that front, and will likely leave much of that discussion to Walker and the moderators. 

If Walker can dispense with those scandals effectively, though, can he also make the case that he’s the best candidate to deal with inflation? That’s Georgia voters’ top issue by far, according to this week’s Quinnipiac poll. Early signs aren’t promising: Walker has called inflation a women’s issue because “they gotta buy groceries.” Let’s see if the debate prep he’s been cramming will pay off.

353d ago / 9:01 PM UTC

You’d rather be Warnock, but Walker has room to run

If you were to ask voters who’ve followed Georgia’s U.S. Senate race if they’d rather be Sen. Raphael Warnock or Herschel Walker right now, anyone who isn’t invested in a Republican victory would say Warnock.

Walker was underperforming both this election cycle’s fundamental conditions, which benefit Republican candidates, and his fellow Republicans on the statewide ballot even before his campaign became engulfed in scandal. Before the allegation that Walker partially reimbursed a woman for an abortion, Georgia’s Senate race was a tossup, at best. The controversy that followed that claim took a bite out of the GOP candidate’s poll numbers, but they have begun to recover as the initial shock of the scandal fades.

Nevertheless, Walker has far more to prove in tonight’s debate than his opponent. He needs to assure Georgians that he’s not only going to represent their interests in the Senate but that he’s not going to become a source of embarrassment. If the candidate who appears on stage tonight is the same candidate who insists climate change is a function of “bad air” wafting over from China, mourns the federal funds “going to trees,” and says he served in the armed forces when he did not, he’s toast.

And yet, Walker has lowered the public’s expectations of him — sometimes intentionally. The candidate has been open and honest about his struggles with mental illness, and his personal baggage is well known. If Walker can turn in a reassuring performance on the debate stage, the fundamentals of 2022 may save him yet.