Reporter’s notebook: On the ground in Savannah, Ga.
Swing state voters talk about candidate quality, scandal, polarization, the 2020 election, and more
Nearly 200 Republican voters gathered at The Clyde Venue, a coffee shop and event space in downtown Savannah, to watch a livestream of a political debate happening less than a mile away. Filling up on a fried chicken dinner and an open bar, attendees purchased “MAGA American” merch and cheered for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker. He confronted incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock for their first and only debate before Election Day on Nov. 8.
Warnock, who made history as the state’s first black senator after winning a special election in 2021, is running on a liberal Democratic platform. Running back-turned-businessman Walker is a Trump-endorsed conservative. The race in Georgia not only sets up an ideological battle between the two but also represents larger rifts in the nation as the midterm elections draw near. Even as the candidates grapple with moral battles, their fight is seen as a proxy war between President Joe Biden and his predecessor, between the left and the right.
Vince Hannon attended the watch party with his wife, Ethel. They booed at the livestream screen when Warnock alleged that Republican-led voting reforms in the state suppress minority votes. Hannon said the Democrats have done little to help him.
“Black Americans have supported the Democratic Party since the early ’60s, but we still get the same promises with no results,” Hannon said. “In the last two years, the Democratic Party has destroyed the economy with inflation, military trends, and this transgender thing they’re pushing. We have people that need healthcare and sustainable income jobs, but we’re not gonna get it by trusting Washington. Washington doesn’t care. With Herschel Walker, if the tide rises, all the boats rise.”
In weeks prior to the debate, Walker tried to temper expectations. He billed himself as a common man and said he would probably be embarrassed when placed on a stage next to a pastor. Instead, the former football star held his own, delivering hard-hitting arguments and surprising supporters gathered at the watch party. He frequently interrupted Warnock, who opted for a more cautious approach. Warnock repeatedly said his opponent “is clearly not ready” to hold office. Walker characterized the incumbent as a Biden lackey, pivoting several times to harp on the current administration’s record and Warnock’s support of it.
Abortion is a top issue for voters across the country, especially since the Supreme Court returned the right to regulate abortion to the states in its Dobbs v. Jackson ruling this past summer. During the debate, Warnock advocated for abortions without limitations. He characterized them as a necessary medical procedure, saying that the government needs to stay out of the patient’s room. “There’s a baby in the room, too,” Walker rebutted. At this, supporters at the nearby watch party cheered and applauded.
Moderators also asked Walker to directly address scandals involving his past. In recent weeks, a former girlfriend said that he sent her a $700 check to get an abortion in 2009. Walker called the story a lie and said he had no idea who she was. Then he admitted that she is the mother of one of his three children born out of wedlock. He also admitted to signing the check but said he did not know what it was for. On the campaign trail, he’s advocated for pro-life protections for unborn babies, including a nationwide law. During the debate, he softened his stance and said he would approve exceptions to protections for the unborn in cases of rape and incest.
Many voters told me they support Walker largely because of his pro-life positions and family values. Sara Lain-Moneymaker is a self-employed Chatham County resident. She attended the Friday night watch party and a pre-debate rally earlier that day. She said that an election is always about voting for the “lesser of two evils.” More importantly than Walker’s past, Lain-Moneymaker said she supports him because he is the conservative candidate on the ticket. Any Republican will do in the swing state.
“Every person makes mistakes,” Lain-Moneymaker told me. “The question is, do we learn from these mistakes? And when Herschel Walker is elected, because we need a good conservative, or at least a Republican in there, there’s a whole group of us that will be writing to him and calling him on a weekly or daily basis to hold him accountable.”
An attack ad released in August featured allegations from an ex-wife that Walker threatened her with a gun. The candidate said he is “best friends” with his former wife and responded with, “Don't let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” Walker has also said he struggled with mental health issues in the past, including dissociative identity disorder. He claims his faith healed him. Watch party attendees said they respect him even more for having a checkered past.
Local organizer Ben Adams said Walker’s handling of the family controversy impressed him: “He didn’t run away from it. He didn’t shy from it. He stood up as a man. And all I can do is respect the man standing tall and owning up to his mistakes. So no, I don’t think that bothered me at all, I think it has made him stronger in my eyes.”
The debate also centered on two candidates who weren’t there: presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Walker redirected several questions to say his opponent voted with Biden the majority of the time, a detail many supporters mentioned to me throughout the weekend. Warnock was asked if he would support Biden in a 2024 reelection bid. Warnock deflected and said he’s focused on the current race. Walker said unequivocally that he would support Trump in the 2024 election.
Some Walker supporters only decided to back him after they heard about Trump’s endorsement. Others said the green light from the former president was the “cherry on the top” that confirmed their support. Most cited the economy and deepening recession as a top reason to vote for Walker, but a lone senator can do little for national economic policy. Rather, voters see the midterm election as a way to voice displeasure with the Democratic Party.
Democrats in the state say Herschel Walker will worsen problems if he wins. Retiree Joan Atkinson has spent the weeks leading up to the election canvassing for Georgia Democrats. She tells residents on their porches that “democracy is on the ballot,” and she specifically urges women to vote Democratic and pro-abortion.
“It’s not something I look forward to doing, but this election is so critical that I have to do something. The current Republican Party seems to have crumbled into a lot of hatred and division,” Atkinson said. “The idea is to just get as many votes as possible. Even if Savannah is blue, it’s just about getting as many to vote Democrat as possible to account for all those other Republicans in more rural areas.”
But the 2020 election still weighs heavy in Georgia. Moderators asked both candidates if they would accept the results of the November election. Both said yes. Walker supporters at the watch party yelled out, “No!”
The state has remained in the national spotlight for voting issues, but to date, there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state. An ongoing investigation is looking into whether former Trump attempted to interfere in the 2020 election. The investigation stems from a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call from Trump to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump suggested the state official “find” more votes for him. Prosecutors are also investigating 16 Georgia Republicans accused of signing fake elector slates in 2020 claiming that Trump won. Biden carried the state by only 0.2 percent. Early voting in the midterm election kicked off on Monday.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.