ATLANTA — A bruising campaign for the final election of 2022 will come to an end Tuesday as voters settle a runoff between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker that could widen or narrow the chamber’s Democratic majority.
As Georgians stream to the polls for early voting, there are more questions than answers: Will Georgians keep up their record-breaking early voting turnout surge? Will split-ticket voters stick with Warnock? Will the election’s loser refuse to concede if it’s a close race? Could there be legal complaints questioning the result?
The challenges are many for both candidates. Walker lagged behind fellow Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by 200,000 votes, meaning he must not only persuade core supporters to return to the polls, but also angle for more swing voters to back his campaign. But gaffes on the stump and other missteps have made that more difficult.
Warnock is also under pressure to keep moderates and independents in his corner while also fighting exhaustion from the Democratic base. After all, Warnock’s name has now been on the ballot five separate times since November 2020 — each vote for the same job.
The Democrat has experience on his side. He narrowly bested then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in January 2021, part of a Democratic sweep of the nine-week runoffs. The wins flipped control of the chamber and enabled President Joe Biden to pursue a more aggressive agenda.
But that runoff campaign was vastly different than this one. Democrats have already clinched a Senate majority, thanks to victories in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania that ensure the party retains 50 seats — and control of the chamber due to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.
That has deprived Walker of a key argument to Republicans: That a vote for him was a vote to deny Democrats control of the chamber. And it is a boon to Warnock, who has long tried to make the contest a referendum on Walker.
Much is still at stake. A Warnock victory would spare Democrats from having to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with their GOP counterparts and give the party breathing room in case more conservative members of their caucus such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona defect on a key issue.
A Walker win would put the Republicans one step closer to retaking control of the chamber — and give them a clean GOP sweep of statewide races in Georgia ahead of a 2024 election that will once again focus attention on the battleground state’s tight politics.
While turnout is expected to be lower than the nearly 4 million ballots cast in the first round, Georgians have stormed the polls during the mandatory weeklong early voting period. Participation has been far higher in counties that Warnock won. Republicans tend to turn out in higher numbers on election day, however, and Walker’s team is counting on heavy turnout on Tuesday to carry him across the finish line.
‘A serious person’
Both candidates are largely waging the same campaigns they ran before the midterm election, but with a decidedly sharper edge.
Warnock says his Republican opponent is “unfit” for the job, owing to his history of violent behavior, bizarre statements and personal baggage — including allegations he pressured two women into having abortions despite calling for a ban on the procedure.
“The differences could not be more stark in the history of Senate races,” he told a crowd in Fayetteville. “This race is about competence and character. I submit to you that they both matter. You need a serious person in the Senate.”
In particular, Warnock targets lies and exaggerations that Walker has promoted about his academic record, his business background and his law enforcement experience to underline his case to voters.
“Herschel Walker is not a police officer. He’s not a member of the FBI. He’s not some brilliant business mogul. He was not valedictorian of his class. He’s not a graduate of the University of Georgia,” Warnock said. “And come Dec. 6, he’s going to discover that he is not a United States senator.”
And in a sign of the increasingly personal stakes of the race, Warnock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Walker “ crossed a line “ when he suggested the Democrat was a negligent father.
Walker publicly acknowledged three of his children for the first time earlier in the campaign after The Daily Beast, a liberal publication, reported that even his own campaign aides were unaware of his personal situation.
The Republican, in turn, has mocked Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who has failed to live up to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who once commanded the congregation’s pulpit.
He’s more recently called on conservatives to “evict Warnock” following reports by the Republican website Free Beacon about shoddy conditions at an apartment building with ties to his church.
At the root of Walker’s case for election is an attempt to link Warnock to Biden, whose approval rating in Georgia has hovered around 40%. He told hundreds of supporters in Smyrna that Warnock and Biden share a knack for “spending our money.”
“All I’ve been hearing him talk about is how he was going to go to Washington and represent us,” Walker said. “But he went to Washington and represented Joe Biden.”
But even as he has blasted Warnock’s record, Walker has provided almost no specifics about what he would do if elected. He lays out no details on the stump, and his campaign didn’t respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asking about his stance on topics such as Medicare and legislation that would codify same-sex and interracial marriage (Walker is in an interracial marriage).
‘A very simple choice’
The competing strategies have come to a head in the final days of the race.
Warnock is attempting a balancing act by trying to energize both liberals and swing voters who helped him finish ahead of Walker in November even as other statewide Democratic contenders were shellacked by Republican rivals.
It’s why in the last week of the election his campaign hosted a Dave Matthews Band concert packed with middle-age white suburbanites and days later staged a rally with former President Barack Obama designed to mobilize Black voters and more traditional Democratic supporters.
And it explains his decision to focus more of his time on the campaign trail discussing his work with well-known Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, rather than alliances with Biden or liberal members of his caucus.
He has the resources to smother the airwaves with ads appealing to both blocs of voters after raising more than $52 million over a roughly three-week span — more than doubling Walker’s haul.
In all, Democrats have spent twice as much on TV ads during the runoff as Republicans, according to an analysis by media strategist Rick Dent.
Walker is not without his own advantages. He’s regularly drawn big crowds at events laced with shout-outs to the football-mad fans donning the red and black of the University of Georgia.
And while his red-meat message to his base supporters has hardly changed, the Senate hopeful boasts perhaps the best GOP messenger to woo Kemp-Warnock voters: The Republican governor has cut ads, headlined a campaign rally and hosted fundraisers for Walker.
“The runoff is a very simple choice: Are you going to vote with somebody who’s been with Joe Biden 96% of the time, or are you going to vote for somebody that’s going to go up there and fight for Georgia?” Kemp told reporters. “That’s the way I’m voting.”