Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and his Republican rival, Herschel Walker, are set to meet for the first — and only — time on the debate stage Friday in Savannah with fewer than four weeks to go before Election Day.
The race in Georgia has emerged as one of the most, if not the most, competitive Senate contests of the 2022 midterms as Republicans look to recapture control of the upper chamber less than two years after being relegated to the minority. While Warnock holds the lead in most public polling, Walker has begun to close the gap, despite facing a stream of controversies.
Here are five things to watch as Warnock and Walker face off.
Does Walker exceed his own expectations?
Warnock has a long history of public speaking; he has served for years as a pastor and went toe-to-toe on the debate stage in 2020 with former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).
Walker, on the other hand, is a former professional football player who has been prone to verbal gaffes on the campaign trail. Perhaps because of this, he has purposefully set a low bar for himself ahead of the debate.
“I’m this country boy, you know. I’m not that smart,” Walker said last month. “And he’s a preacher. He’s a smart man, wears these nice suits. So he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate Oct. 14, and I’m just waiting to show up and I’m going to do my best.”
Call it managing expectations, but one of the biggest questions heading into Friday is whether Walker can rise to the occasion.
A strong performance could help quell concerns about Walker and his grasp of key issues and potentially reshape assumptions about the former NFL star in the final stretch of his campaign.
How does Warnock deal with Biden?
Warnock won a tight race in 2020, but he’s also facing a very different political environment this time around: Former President Trump is no longer in the White House, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and Republicans have sought to tie him as closely to President Biden as possible.
While Warnock has emphasized bipartisanship and his independence from the White House, Republicans have painted a very different picture of the incumbent senator.
Walker and his campaign have repeatedly derided what they have dubbed the “Warnock-Biden agenda,” while GOP groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee have cast the Georgia Democrat as little more than a rubber stamp for an unpopular president.
The Friday debate could give Warnock the chance to convince skeptical voters that that’s not the case.
Of course, that will also require some restraint. Embracing Biden and his agenda too closely will only fuel more Republican attacks, while distancing himself from the president too much could isolate Democratic base voters who are eager to keep the Senate majority in order to further Biden’s agenda.
Does it get personal?
The contest between Walker and Warnock has hinged on the candidates’ characters perhaps more than any other Senate race this year.
Walker has repeatedly faced questions about his business record and personal life, including allegations of domestic abuse and the revelation that he fathered three previously undisclosed children despite railing against absentee fathers.
And little more than a week ago, Walker ran up against allegations that he had paid for his then-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009 — a claim that he has denied, albeit one that has fueled a litany of criticism.
Warnock has so far been pretty subdued in his remarks on the allegations against Walker. Whether that changes on the debate stage, however, remains a key question. While Republicans and some Democrats say that Warnock would be wise to avoid personal attacks, the debate also offers him the opportunity to put Walker on the spot just weeks before Election Day.
At the same time, Republicans have sought to highlight domestic violence allegations against Warnock related to a 2020 altercation in which his ex-wife accused the senator of running over her foot.
While police found no evidence to support that claim, the allegation could allow Walker to return fire should the debate become personal.
Does Trump come up at all?
Trump eagerly backed Walker in the Republican nominating contest, handing him an early endorsement that ultimately contributed to the former football star’s primary victory.
But since then, the former president has kept a relatively low profile in the general election match-up between Warnock and Walker — and many Republicans have been grateful for that, believing that it has allowed Walker to focus more on his own messaging than on Trump’s.
But Trump still looms large over Georgia.
Not only did he help boost Walker to the Republican nomination, he campaigned heavily against Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in the GOP gubernatorial primary earlier this year and is still facing a criminal investigation in Fulton County over his and his allies’ efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state.
Such a topic could feasibly come up on Friday night, especially given that Democrats are hoping to cast the 2022 midterms as an effort to safeguard American democracy from Trump’s efforts to unravel it.
At the same time, a new super PAC sanctioned by Trump, MAGA Inc., has begun spending money in Georgia, hoping to boost Walker ahead of Election Day. That could also give rise to more questions about Walker’s ties to the former president.
Will the debate change anything?
In their purest form, candidate debates are meant to offer a contrasting view of two rivals and their platforms as voters weigh whom to elect.
But many strategists and experts are skeptical of just how much debates matter these days. The country is deeply polarized, and many voters reflexively flock to their parties’ respective corners. At the same time, debates are often treated as media spectacles, where soundbites and insults attract much of the attention.
And with the Georgia debate, there’s the question of its timing.
“It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday night,” one Republican strategist involved in Georgia politics said. “People are getting off work, they’re going out to dinner, they’re unwinding from the week. We’re not talking about Friday night football here.”