ATLANTA — Although bullish about winning a Senate runoff election on Tuesday, Georgia Democrats say they are taking nothing for granted in this right-leaning purple state.
The long, bitter battle between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, went to a runoff after neither candidate won 50% of the vote in last month's midterm election. Georgians from both parties say they're happy that the race is finally coming to a close, with 1.9 million of them — or roughly 1 in 4 voters — going to the ballot box in last week's early voting period. In November, a record 3.9 million ballots were cast.
That high early-voting turnout is, in all likelihood, a boon for Warnock. But with Tuesday’s outcome still far from certain, he has been crisscrossing the state to win over as many independents and moderate Republicans as he can. On Monday alone, Warnock has eight scheduled campaign events, half of which his campaign said he plans to attend and the others led by surrogates.
“This race is about character and competence,” the incumbent senator said at a rally last week featuring former President Barack Obama. “I know [Walker and I] have political differences. That’s part of what makes this country a great country. But let me tell you, this is not about Republican and Democrat. This is not about right and left. This is about the difference between right and wrong.”
Warnock, a Baptist preacher who edged out Walker by about 35,000 votes in the general midterm election, has run a disciplined campaign full of catchy attack ads powered by his sky-high fundraising. Yet Walker remains competitive; the final CNN poll in the race found the Republican former University of Georgia football hero just 4 points behind Warnock, 52% to 48%.
The poll revealed deep skepticism among voters about Walker’s honesty. But nearly half of those who said they would vote for Walker said their vote was in opposition to Warnock more than anything else.
“Warnock won the votes by mail and early in-person vote ahead of the Nov. 8 election but lost Election Day by closer to 220,000 votes,” Atlanta-based Democratic strategist Fred Hicks told Yahoo News. “If that history repeats itself it could very well be enough to elevate Walker, although it feels unlikely.”
Despite all of the challenges that have plagued the Walker campaign for months — including the acknowledgment of two children he had never publicly mentioned, revelations that he had exaggerated involvement with law enforcement and claims that the staunch anti-abortion advocate pressured multiple women to get abortions — there is still a good chance he could win. Walker has denied the abortion allegations and has sought to paint Warnock as the dishonest candidate.
“The only reason he got in office is because he was in Dr. King’s church,” Walker said last week of Warnock, who is the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — a role once occupied by Martin Luther King Jr.
“He’s been fooling us, trying to take us down that elevator,” Walker added. “I’m not falling for it.”
Walker's campaign has repeatedly tried to turn the election into a referendum on President Biden. It has also tried to tie Warnock to Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is not on Tuesday's ballot. But Warnock has been hamstrung by a series of bizarre gaffes, including a recent digression on vampires and werewolves, and his close ties to former President Donald Trump.
Yet with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's easy reelection win against Abrams last month, Georgians once again reminded the rest of the country that the state still leans Republican. After all, with Biden's surprising win in the Peach State in 2020, he became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state in nearly three decades.
It all gives conservatives statewide some degree of hope. A Walker victory would keep the Democratic Senate majority to just 50 seats, leaving Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer largely dependent on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
"I think a lot of Republicans are hoping we'll be pleasantly surprised, but there aren't a lot of indications out there to base that on," Jason Shepherd, former chair of the Cobb County GOP, told Politico. "Just a lot of hope and faith in things unseen."
But Walker's campaign has spent much of the last month leaving the GOP's most seasoned political veterans both frustrated and confused at times. While Warnock hasn't let 48 hours pass without some kind of public event or rally in the last three weeks, Walker chose not to hold a single public event in the week surrounding Thanksgiving, much to the surprise of Republican allies, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
And while Warnock has averaged three to five daily events in the last week, Walker averages about two. On Monday, however, the Republican has five scheduled events around the state.
In emails to supporters, Walker's team has bemoaned being outspent 3 to 1.
Both candidates have been spending tens of millions on ads. In the four weeks since last month's general election, nearly $80 million has been spent to buy airtime, according to ad tracking firm AdImpact. But groups supporting Warnock spent nearly twice as much as Walker's allies in that time.
In all, some $335 million has been spent on ads in the race.
While experts hint at a race that is Warnock's to lose, there were reports for months of a "red wave" of Republican nominees winning in this year's midterm elections that failed to materialize altogether, epitomizing the lack of sure bets in any statewide race.
Residents of Georgia — specifically those in metro Atlanta versus rural Georgia — remain divided on their support for either candidate.
“People don’t want the same thing to happen again with Warnock [in office],” a woman named Stephanie, who chose not to give her last name but identified as a Republican, told Yahoo News at a Walker rally last week. “Atlanta has gotten so bad with crime. Walker will be able to support Republican policy.”
While waiting in a two-hour line to vote at Fulton County’s Ponce De Leon Library on Friday, Atlanta resident Rex Patton called Walker’s entire campaign “pathetic.”
“The man is illiterate and only running because he’s famous in Georgia,” Patton, 71, told Yahoo News. “Warnock, on the other hand, can speak in complete sentences and he’s a preacher, so he has good values. Plus, he actually lives in Georgia,” Patton said, referring to Walker’s longtime residency in Texas.
Other voters expressed abortion rights and voting rights as key issues driving them to the ballot box once again.
“I’m all about voting because it’s so important and great to see,” a middle-aged white woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said after voting at the Dorothy Benson senior center in Sandy Springs, Ga., a city 30 miles north of Atlanta. “This is the longest line I’ve seen in years.”
For Gen Z voters like 23-year-old Emma Sollenberger, abortion rights are a key motivator.
“Reproductive rights are important to me,” said Sollenberger. “It’s simultaneously a relief and disappointing that there was a runoff at all. I’m glad someone wasn’t elected that was against these rights, but it’s disappointing that less than 50% voted for Warnock last month.”
While waiting several hours in line to vote late last week, Lara Davis and Shontina Vernon — a Black, queer married couple — told Yahoo News that their livelihood made voting in the race “critical.”
“It’s incredible seeing people stand up for democracy, but it’s a shame we have to wait two to three hours to do that,” Davis said. “Whether it’s the Electoral College or this runoff, it seems to be about pushing out voters of color.”
“The LGBTQ issues are important to me,” Vernon said. “We’ll do what we have to do, but it feels unnecessary because there was such a strong showing in the first round and if a candidate gets the most votes, then they should win.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Brandon Bell/Getty Images