U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Republican challenger Herschel Walker traded policy positions and took jabs at each other’s personal histories Friday night during what likely will be their sole debate before Georgia voters decide who to send to Washington. 

Recent allegations that former University of Georgia football star Walker paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion despite his public pro-life stance put questions of character and reputation center stage. 

Walker is seeking to unseat Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The race has drawn national attention – and dollars – because its outcome could determine the party balance of the currently 50-50 Senate. 

Warnock repeatedly criticized Walker’s honesty.

“My opponent has a problem with the truth,” he said. 

Walker tied Warnock to President Joe Biden over and over, blaming inflation and a host of other problems on the Democratic duo. 

“You have to blame this administration and Senator Warnock because within two years, this inflation has gotten worse,” Walker said. “They cut out energy independence. They also raised taxes.” 

Walker said he would focus on boosting U.S. energy independence to address inflation. 

Warnock rebutted the claim that he had raised taxes, pointing to his support for the Child Tax Credit and his work to include caps on the costs of  prescription drugs and insulin in the Inflation Reduction Act recently passed by Congress. 

Warnock also praised Biden’s recent decision to forgive some student loan debt and said more help is needed. Walker called the loan forgiveness “unfair” and said people should not have to pay for someone else’s loan. 

“That was a lie and I’m not backing down,” Walker said when asked about the recent allegations that he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion.

Walker added that he supported Georgia’s heartbeat law, which bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, but evaded answering a question about whether he would support a nationwide total ban on abortions. 

Warnock grounded his pro-choice stance in his belief in women’s privacy and theology. 

“A patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government,” Warnock said. “I’m a man of faith and I have a profound reverence for life and a deep respect for choice.” 

Georgia should also expand Medicaid, Warnock said. Doing so would save the state money and help people access health care, he said. 

“Georgia needs a senator who believes like I do that health care is a human right,” he said. 

“What I want you to do is get off the government health care,” Walker shot back. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to make you independent rather than dependent.”

On crime, Warnock pointed to his support for increased funding and resources for local law enforcement departments. And he said he is pleased about a new gun safety law Congress passed in June. 

In contrast, Walker emphasized his strong support for the Second Amendment right to bear arms and painted Warnock as soft on crime. 

“He’s empowered criminals to think they’re better than the police, and he believes in no-cash bail and releasing prisoners,” Walker said. “He don’t protect the border. Fentanyl is coming into this country and also Atlanta.”

The debate took an unusual turn when Warnock criticized Walker’s claims to have worked for the FBI and other law enforcement departments in the past. 

“I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and I have never threatened a shootout with the police,” Warnock said, referring to an incident when Walker allegedly threatened his ex-wife with a gun. 

In response, Walker pulled out a badge that he said proved he had served on a police force, leading one of the debate hosts to chide him for breaking a debate rule against bringing props on stage. 

Both candidates said they would accept the results of the next election. Walker said he would support another Donald Trump run for the presidency, while Warnock did not directly answer whether he would support a Biden run in 2024. 

The race is in a dead heat, according to a Capitol Beat/Georgia News Collaborative poll of 1,030 likely general election voters released this week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Rebecca Grapevine | Capitol Beat

Rebecca Grapevine is a journalist based in Atlanta.