It was an event unlikely to shake up the race, according to Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor widely considered the foremost authority on state politics. There were no major misstatements or the kind of gaffes that end up in opposition ads.
“They both acquitted themselves reasonably well,” he said. “They both escaped without damage.”
Even the most meme’d moment of the night, when Walker pulled out what appeared to be a police badge during a discussion of law enforcement, was not a new claim from the candidate.
About halfway through the debate, Warnock reiterated his support for police officers, adding “I’ve never pretended to be a police officer.”
“I have to respond to that,” Walker said, producing the badge. “You know what’s so funny — I am, have worked with many police officers.”
The moderator quickly cut Walker off, telling him that no props were allowed (“it’s not a prop, it’s real” Walker responded). But the claim from Walker that he worked with law enforcement is one he has made repeatedly.
According to a June Atlanta Journal Constitution report, his campaign said he was an honorary deputy in Cobb County, a position one district attorney described as “like a junior ranger badge.”
Warnock defends, Walker attacks
With early voting set to open Oct. 17, Bullock said that the economy remains a strong suit for Republicans, while Democrats are safer on abortion. A recent poll from UGA shows that 54% of respondents say rising prices have a significant negative impact on their life; more than 60% take issue with Georgia’s restrictive abortion law.
Over the course of the debate, both candidates tried to play to their policy strengths.
Moments after the start of the debate, Walker began cutting into Warnock. In his opening statement, he warned viewers that Warnock would “try to sweet talk you about what he has done, but his record speaks for itself.”
Warnock, for his part, was happy to defend that record. He has not been in office long for a sitting senator — just under two years, instead of the typical six-year term. In April, he released an advertisement saying “a magician, I’m not,” highlighting his policy efforts but also his short time in office.
On the debate stage, however, he largely stuck to what he had already achieved, including passing the Inflation Reduction Act, along with several bipartisan policy efforts. He also ducked several hypothetical questions — including on increasing the minimum wage, expanding the Supreme Court, and supporting President Joe Biden running for re-election in 2024.
“The people of Georgia hired me to represent them regardless of who’s in the White House,” Warnock said in response to the last question. “They didn’t hire me to be a pundit.”
Walker, who in September told reporters he was “just a country boy” and wouldn’t perform well in the debates, sounded sharper than usual. He began each response by challenging Warnock’s stance on issues such as crime, abortion and the economy.
Asked to provide a specific solution to inflation, the former Heisman winner criticized the Biden Administration and Warnock for the country’s economic downfall.
“Within two years, inflation has gotten worse,” said Walker. “They have raised taxes and have had reckless spending with our money. We need to become energy independent again. We have a national security problem.”
Walker was not able to spend the entire debate on the attack, facing some hard questions about his competence in office and several scandals, alleged and otherwise.
News broke earlier this month that Walker allegedly paid a woman to have an abortion. Walker, who is pro-life, has been vocal about women’s reproductive rights and bases his stance on Christian principles. He said he supports Georgia’s new abortion bill, which bans abortion after about six weeks but does include exceptions for rape and incest with a police report.
“Georgia is a state that respects life and I will be a senator that protects life,” said Walker. “[The abortion report] is a lie and I’m not going to back down. This seat is too important for me to back down.”
Walker was not asked about the controversy surrounding the domestic dispute with his ex-wife.
Warnock for his part was asked about a recent news report that charitable housing run by Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he is senior pastor, was filing evictions over non-payment of relatively small amounts of rent. He described the attacks as “desperate” and said they were false, but did not elaborate on the specifics of the story.
The issue is somewhat complicated — the eviction notices were filed by a management company that holds a 1% ownership share of the building and oversees it. The management company told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that no residents had actually been evicted for non-payment since June 2020 and that neither Warnock nor his church were involved in operating the building.
Although he has been an advocate for mental illness, Walker may have confused voters struggling with the same ailment when he said he does need “any help.”
“I have a mental health problem and so many people have one,” said Walker. “Warnock tries to demonize people with mental health issues. You don’t have to have treatment for it. I talk to my pastors. I don’t need any help. I am doing well. I am ready to lead today. I am ready to vote with the Georgia voters.”
The one area where Bullock though Walker’s debate might have hurt him was in his enthusiastic support of former President Donald Trump — who is unpopular among otherwise Republican white, college educated Georgia voters.
“If the Democrats can get 40% of that group,” Bullock said, “They can come pretty close to winning this state.”
What comes next
Warnock closed the debate on a positive note, with a reflection on the responsibility of being a senator and hope for the future.
“In this state we have nearly 11 million people, and only two people get to represent us in the United States Senate — just two,” Warnock said. “I’ve worked with Democrats and Republicans to do that work. These are difficult times. These are dark times. But the scripture says that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness overcometh it not.”
In his closing remarks, Walker told Georgian’s Warnock’s stay in Congress should be over because of what he has done so far.
“For those of you who are concerned about voting for me, think about the damage Biden and Warnock have done to this country,” said Walker.
In a post-debate interview with NewsNation cable TV network, Walker said he felt relieved and will continue to connect with voters as Election Day draws near. Walker later told the USA TODAY network that in the next few weeks he would “continue doing what I’ve been doing, talking to the people, letting them know that I will stand for them, and I will vote for them, and not vote for Joe Biden.”
Both campaigns claimed victory after the debate, unsurprisingly. Walker had two campaign supporters, including Congressional Rep. Buddy Carter field press questions after the debate, Warnock’s campaign sent a statement but did not make anyone available Friday or Saturday to answer press questions afterwards.
Warnock and Walker will have just a few more weeks at most to win over voters and get them voting, or just days in some cases. Starting Monday, people will begin to vote early in what is expected to be a high turnout election — and that will be where the campaigns turn their attention now.
“They’ve got to get their voters to the polls,” Bullock said. “There’s a lot of new voters in Georgia you can work to mobilize.”