At debate, Walker denies past support for US abortion ban

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This combination of photos shows, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 3, 2021, left, and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaking in Perry, Ga., Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo)

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Georgia’s Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker on Friday denied his previous support for an outright national ban on abortion, though he has insisted at various points throughout the campaign that it was a proposal he endorsed.

Walker, a staunch anti-abortion politician recently accused by a former girlfriend of encouraging and paying for her 2009 abortion, was asked during a debate with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock about his support for “a complete ban on a national level.” He said the moderator had misstated his position.

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Walker's claim contradicted statements he had made repeatedly on the campaign trail, including in July when he said "that's a problem” that there is no national ban.

Walker said Friday that his position is the same as Georgia's state law, the so-called heartbeat bill that bans abortion at six weeks, before many women know they're pregnant. That law went into effect this year after the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions nationwide.

The debate in Georgia’s marquee Senate contest was held just days before in-person early voting begins Monday. The outcome will help determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years of President Joe Biden’s term.

The heated exchange on abortion was one of many that highlighted stark differences between the two men on policy, personality and governing philosophy. The debate covered a wide range of topics, including abortion, personal integrity, crime and student loans, and forced both men to answer attacks that have flooded voters’ television screens and social media feeds for months.

Walker, a Georgia football icon making his first bid for public office, leaned heavily on assertions that Warnock is a puppet of President Joe Biden, saying the Nov. 8 midterm election is about what those two “had done to you and your family” in an inflationary economy. Warnock, who is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, answered that the election is a choice about “who is ready to represent Georgia."

Warnock never directly brought up the recent allegations about Walker paying for an abortion, leaving that to moderators, who elicited another flat denial from the Republican nominee. Trying to shift the discussion, Walker blasted Warnock for being a Baptist pastor who supports abortion rights and suggested he doesn't care about abortions in the Black community. Both men are Black.

“Instead of aborting those babies, why aren't you baptizing those babies?” Walker asked.

Warnock insisted he can support abortion rights as a Christian and a pastor. “God gave us a choice and I respect the right of women to make a decision," Warnock said, adding that Walker “wants to arrogate more power to politicians than God has."

Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff won their Senate seats in a January 2021 special election two months after Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. That was the first time in two decades Democrats won federal elections in the historically conservative state, raising questions about whether Warnock can replicate his victory in a midterm election, especially with Biden’s popularity down among Georgia voters.

Walker repeatedly blamed Warnock and Biden for inflation, thought he offered little when pressed for details about what he would do to fix it. Walker said the first step to a more stable economy is “getting back” to energy independence rather than depending “on our enemies.” The U.S. has, in actuality, never been completely free from depending on fossil fuel imports from other countries, including some with whom Washington has tense relationships, such as Russia.

In his defense, Warnock highlighted Democrats' “Inflation Reduction Act,” with a focus on provisions he sponsored capping insulin and other health care costs for Medicare recipients, Democrats’ extension of the child tax credit and infrastructure provisions that Warnock shepherded with Republican colleagues. But Warnock also offered few specifics about any additional steps Congress could take.

Warnock also declined to engage on whether Biden should seek reelection in 2024, arguing that Georgia's immediate choice for the Senate is more important. Senate Democratic candidates around the country have distanced themselves from Biden during the fall campaign.

Walker deviated from his friend, former President Donald Trump, by acknowledging that Biden won legitimately in 2020. But Walker wasted no time saying he'd support Trump in 2024, calling it an act of loyalty. Trump encouraged Walker to run and has endorsed him.

Both Walker and Warnock said they would accept the outcome of their Senate election.

Debate moderators drew both men into discussions of their personal lives.

Recent reporting by The Daily Beast disclosed records of an abortion receipt and a subsequent personal check from Walker to a woman who said the celebrity football icon paid for her abortion when they were dating. Walker's denials have continued even after the woman identified herself as the mother of one of his four children.

Other reports, including from The Associated Press, have detailed how Walker has exaggerated his academic achievements, business success and philanthropic activities, as well as accusations that he threatened the life of his ex-wife that go beyond details Walker himself acknowledged in a 2008 memoir and subsequent media interviews. Walker also acknowledged three of his children publicly for the first time only after earlier Daily Beast reporting. Before his Senate bid, he’d spoken publicly only of Christian Walker, his adult son by his first wife.

Warnock, in perhaps his most searing move against Walker, alluded to that cascade of stories. “We will see time and time again tonight, as we’ve always seen, that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” said Warnock, dismissing reports that a foundation tied to Ebenezer Baptist Church had evicted tenants from its real estate holdings. He said Walker was trying to “sully the name of Martin Luther King's church.”

When Walker accused Warnock of being anti-police, Warnock brought up Walker's myriad suggestions that he's worked in law enforcement. “One thing I’ve never done, I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police,” the senator said.

Walker has never been a trained law enforcement officer, though he has a litany of law enforcement endorsements and pulled out what appeared to be a police badge, prompting a rebuke from moderators who reminded him of debate rules forbidding props.

Walker pushed back at the notion that his past should be disqualifying by pointing to a 2008 memoir in which he detailed being diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder. Walker said he's “been transparent.”

“I continue to get help if I need help, but I don't need any help. I'm doing well,” he said. “I'm ready to lead today.”

The Savannah debate was the two rivals' only meeting because Walker declined to accept the three fall debates typical in Georgia campaigns. The Friday debate did not include Libertarian Chase Oliver, who did not meet organizers' polling threshold.

Warnock will meet Oliver in a Sunday forum sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. In that debate, Walker will be represented by an empty podium because he declined the invitation.

Early voting begins Monday and runs through Nov. 4. Election Day is Nov. 8.


Barrow reported from Atlanta.

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