Republican Senate contender Herschel Walker, whose campaign is engulfed in an evolving scandal after reports that he asked a woman to have two abortions, continued to bat down the allegations as a lie during one of the most anticipated debates ahead of the 2022 midterm election.
“That’s a lie,” Walker said Friday night in Savannah, Georgia. “I’m a Christian. I believe in life.”
The Daily Beast reported last week that popular former football player paid for a woman to have an abortion in 2009. The woman also told The New York Times that Walker tried convincing her to have a second abortion two years later, but she refused and gave birth to a son, who is one of Walker’s four children.
As a candidate, Walker supports a full ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
In what was perhaps the most anticipated debate of the 2022 midterm election season, the exchanges between Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock – on local, national and international topics – were largely bereft of fireworks, other than the candidates occasionally accusing each other of being less than truthful. The Georgia Senate seat is crucial to GOP hopes of controlling Congress.
Despite the evolving abortion revelations, Republicans have continued to prop up Walker’s campaign, saying openly that the seat is too important to their chances of controlling the Senate chamber – an admission that showcases the difficulty the Republican Party finds itself in the run-up to Election Day in other states as well.
Indeed, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, traveled to Georgia earlier this week to stump for Walker, as did Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who blessed Walker’s campaign with an endorsement during the Republican primary, told reporters this week, “I think we’re going to stick with Walker and all the effort we put in through [the Senate Leadership Fund], we’re going to take it all the way to the end.”
The Senate Leadership Fund – the biggest Senate Republican super PAC that’s aligned with McConnell – is continuing with more than $34 million in television ads in the state in support of Walker.
Abortion rights were already a central theme for Democrats in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade as they seek to retain power in both chambers of Congress. The spike in new voter registrations by women voters suggests that strategy is working, and the allegations against Walker were a significant blow, especially for a candidate running in a state with the highest maternal mortality rate in the country.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in 2019 one of the first so-called “heartbeat bills,” which ban abortion after six week with exceptions allowed if a woman faces serious harm or death in pregnancy, or in cases of rape or incest – but only if a police report has been filed.
Walker said that, if elected, he would continue to be “a senator to protect life.”
A poll published this week shows that a majority of Georgians – particularly Black voters – continue to oppose the state’s new restrictive abortion law. Nearly 62% of the 1,000 likely voters said that they objected to it, including roughly 54% who said they “strongly opposed it.” Among Black respondents, 86% said they firmly disapprove of the law.
The poll was commissioned by the Georgia News Collaborative from the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center.
Warnock has steered clear of addressing the abortion allegations against Walker, choosing to say instead, for example, that his opponent “has trouble with the truth” – a line he repeated during the debate.
When asked to clarify the nuances of his positions as a pastor who also believes in choice, Walker said that politicians have no place in the medical room and that women should be making such decisions with their doctors and, if they choose, also seek guidance from their pastors.
“God gave us a choice,” Warnock said. “I respect the right of women to make a decision. These are medical decisions. They are deeply personal. Women find themselves in a range of circumstances and this issue has been far too politicized and we are witnessing right now the chaos that ensues because of that. I think that’s deeply problematic.”
In past midterm election years, someone like Walker would be cast as a fringe candidate that squeaked through due to a rare combination of unforeseen circumstances. But in the latest era of GOP politics dominated by former President Donald Trump, where the most zealous candidates rise to the top in primaries, it’s more the rule than the exception this year.
That personality was center stage Friday night, as Walker focused less on policy and more on attacking Warnock for his record in supporting President Joe Biden’s agenda. Warnock at times appeared to unwittingly assist Walker, stumbling over a question about whether he would support a Biden 2024 reelection bid.
But Warnock, who at some points during the debate became visibly irritated by Walker’s comments, passed up opportunities to criticize his opponent and chose instead to stick to his policy acumen, talking in detail about his stances on things like abortion, student loans, medicare, inflation and crime.
He brushed off Walker’s attempts to paint him a Biden yes man, noting, for example, how he worked with Republicans to help broker the infrastructure deal that led to a $8 million windfall for the Port of Savannah, the second-largest port on the East Coast located not far from where the two debated. He also highlighted his work with GOP colleagues, including with Sen. Marco Rubio on maternal mortality and Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia to prevent the Biden administration from shuttering a military air combat training center.
The debate was the latest in a string of high-profile face-offs that occurred over the last 10 days, which also included debates between Senate and gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona.
The once deep-red state, which Biden won by 11,779 votes in 2020 and whose two Democratic senators won in run-offs in 2021, giving Democrats control over the 50-50 chamber, has become ground zero for the country’s voting rights debate.
In the wake of Democratic gains, which occurred alongside record-breaking voter turnout, Georgia’s GOP-controlled state legislature passed a bill that placed sweeping new restrictions on voting rights, including requiring voters to submit ID information with both absentee ballot requests and the ballot itself, limiting the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, allowing for unlimited challenges to a voter’s qualification and reducing the runoff election period from nine to four weeks. The law also gives the Republican-controlled state legislature more power over elections themselves.
Early voting begins on Monday and Georgia and both contenders agreed that they would accept the results of the election.