In high-profile Georgia runoff race, Democrats hope to boost their advantage in the Senate

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While the rest of the country might be taking a pause from politics amid the holiday season, Georgians are once again being tasked with finishing the Senate makeup after a crucial national election.

Over the past two years Peach State voters have had a marathon of contests – the 2020 presidential election, two separate 2021 Senate runoff contests and the 2022 midterms.

Now they are casting ballots in another runoff race that will determine if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock can stiff-arm Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

Warnock joked about how supporters might be exhausted at a rally in Atlanta this past week headlined by former President Barack Obama.

"Here's why you know I want this job," Warnock said. "This is the fifth time my name has been on the ballot in less than two years for the same doggone job."

Georgia Senate race: Georgia's runoff will determine if Senate is split 50-50 or 51-49. What's the difference?

But the voters with whom USA TODAY spoke have accepted Georgia's new swing state status and are ready to cast their ballots in Tuesday's high-profile Senate runoff.

Jonathan Rose, 36, of Clayton, Georgia, has already cast his ballot for Warnock.

"I imagine that most people are fatigued, but I am a very avid political person," Rose said. "I'm more prepared mentally to just vote every time that we have to or need to."

Robert Stephens, a truck driver from Ellijay, couldn't make in time to cast a ballot in November. He's itching to throw his support behind Walker.

"I just want to see our state change for the better," Stephens said. "I believe he's the better option."

This combination of photos shows Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.
This combination of photos shows Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.

Democrats were able to secure their Senate majority this year with victories in other states, but that doesn't mean nothing is at stake Tuesday.

This year's special election will determine whether the chamber remains evenly split at 50-50, which proved to be a difficult tightrope for President Joe Biden and the Democrats, who relied on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tiebreaking votes.

That reality has frustrated progressive activists, who decried how in Biden's first two years just one moderate or conservative Senate Democrat watered down or blocked their legislative priorities on multiple issues.

A 51-49 majority would give the White House a cushion on judicial appointments and other key confirmations for the next two years.

"That 51st vote is a big difference, and it does give you a little bit of insurance policy,"  said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a Georgia-based voting rights group.

Georgia Senate runoff: Football icon Herschel Walker, Sen. Raphael Warnock clash in runoff election

In the sprint of the four-week runoff, Warnock is making the overtime race about character and competency. Walker, joined by multiple top GOP officials on the trail, is repeating much of the same attack lines from the general election, which focused on Biden's unpopularity, economic problems and culture wars. But experts told USA TODAY that after months of the two men crisscrossing the state, there are even fewer persuadable voters left.

Both parties will have to do more to engage voters in the middle of the holidays who may feel fatigued by the constant campaigning over the past two years.

University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock said that means it's a turnout game.

"Literally, if either one of these candidates could get exactly the same number of votes (on Tuesday) as they got three weeks ago, they win because there'll be enough drop-off," he said.

High early voting numbers

Stephens, the truck driver, said he believes Republicans won't be deterred by the overall outcome in the Senate and will show up for Walker.

"I can only speak for my family and a few friends, but most of them have already voted," he said.

If the multiple races Georgians have had to endure since 2020 has tired out voters, they aren't showing it. They have already broken early-voting turnout records, according to the secretary of state's office.

More than 1.8 million Georgians have already voted in the runoff. On Friday, the last day for early voting, more than 350,000 Georgians cast a ballot, shattering the one-day record for early voting.

The record turnout suggests that while voters may be fatigued, it's not stopping them from exercising their civic duty.

Early voting: Appeals court rejects challenge to Saturday early voting in Georgia's Warnock vs. Walker runoff

"I hear people complaining about campaign commercials and complaining about texts and emails," said Michael Weiss, a 52-year-old lawyer in Atlanta.

"But I have not come across a person, Republican or Democrat – although I think my circles are more Democratic – that would feel anything less than we gotta do this again and are ready to do it again."

On the trail, Warnock has pointed to his own record as a way to emphasize what this race is about, but he has also been more overt in hammering that Walker is unfit to be a senator.

“This race is about two people – Reverend Warnock and Herschel Walker – and who’s fit to represent Georgians," Warnock campaign spokeswoman Sarafina Chitika said.

"Georgians are turning out to support Reverend Warnock because they see the clear choice in this election, and they know Reverend Warnock has the competence and character to fight for them and their families in the Senate.”

That point resonates with voters such as Janet Jackson, 69, a homemaker from Columbus, who has already voted for Warnock because of her extreme distaste for Walker.

44 in the Peach State: Obama paints GOP as party of 'Looney Tunes' as he campaigns for Warnock ahead of Georgia runoff

"I heard him on television the other day talking about werewolves can kill vampires. And he wants to be a vampire. He no longer wants to be a werewolf. I'm like, 'What is he talking about?'" Jackson said. "This (is) crazy stuff."

At a rally in McDonough last month, Walker referenced an unspecified horror film in which a character couldn't kill a vampire because the character lacked faith.

The Walker campaign did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

A CNN poll released over the weekend showed Warnock holding a narrow 4-point lead over Walker among likely voters, which was just outside the survey's 3-point margin of error.

The survey shows Warnock and Democratic attacks on Walker have worked to an extent, with 59% saying the former NFL running back isn't trustworthy.

U.S. Senate candidates Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, and Herschel Walker
U.S. Senate candidates Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, and Herschel Walker

Will Dems get breathing room in Senate?

Political activists said that while the Senate majority isn't on the line in the 2022 runoff, there is plenty of reason for progressive and conservative voters to be plugged into the contests.

Albright, the Black Voters Matter activist, said progressive-minded Georgians, particularly African American voters, are aware of how issues that mattered to them didn't come to fruition or were watered down because of the razor-thin majority.

The importance of this year's runoff, he said, means less leverage for Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who resisted calls to alter the Senate's filibuster rule to pass a progressive national voting rights bill.

"People are very much aware of that, and they view getting this seat to be them getting closer to making those two less relevant," Alright said.

Obama alluded to that point – without mentioning Manchin or Sinema by name – when urging Warnock supporters not to get sleepy at a rally this past Thursday in Atlanta.

"It gives Democrats more breathing room on important bills," Obama said. "It prevents one person from holding up everything."

Conservative activists in Georgia said that they are also aware of the significance of Walker winning the runoff and that their voters are equally energized.

"We know having a 50-50 tie means a lot because there are some actually common-sense Democrats like a Joe Manchin," said Wesley Ross, state director of Citizens for Renewing America, a Trump-aligned political advocacy group.

A 51-seat majority would give Biden and the Democrats clear control of Senate committees, which will matter when there are openings on the federal bench or debates on close spending bills.

Other Republicans in the state, however, are more skeptical about whether average voters care as much about the runoff after the failure to generate a red wave nationally.

Former congressional candidate John Cowan, who ran against Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in the 2020 GOP primary, said he notices a lack of interest among right-leaning voters.

"You're just going to see the wind taken out of the sails for a lot of Republicans," he said. "I could be wrong, but they're just not going to be as motivated to go out and vote, and that's sort of the sense I get on the ground."

Warnock leads in fundraising

The Georgia Senate race is the most expensive race of the midterm season, according to OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks money in politics.

Warnock raised more than $150 million, the most money of all Senate candidates, while Walker, at $58 million, was the fourth-highest Senate candidate.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., center, prepares to speak at a rally after being introduced by Civil Rights icon Andrew Young, left, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Atlanta.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., center, prepares to speak at a rally after being introduced by Civil Rights icon Andrew Young, left, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Atlanta.

Political action committees have come to Warnock's aid at higher amounts than Walker in the runoff race. Super PACs have spent more than $40 million supporting Warnock or opposing Walker and more than $24 million supporting Walker or opposing Warnock, according to filings reported to the Federal Elections Commission through Thursday.

In Warnock's camp is Georgia Honor, a group affiliated with the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, that spent the most amount of money during the runoff campaign. Georgia Honor has spent more than $19 million to support Warnock, according to the FEC.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dished out more than $15 million during the runoff on Walker's behalf. And Americans For Prosperity Action, a conservative advocacy group, spent $4.5 million on the runoff.

“We continue to be laser-focused on the reasons we endorsed Herschel Walker in the first place – his positions on the kitchen-table economic issues that Georgia voters care about most, especially those in rural and lower-income communities who can least afford higher costs for groceries and gas," said Kevin Cooke, AFP Action's Georgia senior adviser.

Kemp comes to Walker's rescue

During the general midterm election, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Walker rarely campaigned together as Kemp fended off another challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams.

But after decisively winning reelection and outpacing Walker by more than 200,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast, Kemp is coming to the former NFL star's help for the runoff campaign.

Marci McCarthy, chairwoman of the DeKalb County GOP, acknowledged that many voters split their ticket for Kemp and Warnock.

She said getting Walker over the finish line Tuesday will require the entire GOP, across the ideological spectrum, to unite.

"The governor has clearly stated that he's on Team Herschel," she said. "It can't get any more clear than that on how Gov. Kemp and Herschel Walker are on the same team with the same goal of victory."

The Senate Leadership Fund recruited Kemp and his campaign operation on Walker's behalf.

In a tweet Friday, Kemp stood outside his polling place for a brief video telling supporters that a big turnout is needed to send Walker to the Senate.

He repeated much of the Walker campaign's attack lines by calling attention to record-high inflation, the "disaster at the (U.S.-Mexico) border" and how Warnock has supported Biden's legislative priorities.

The question is, will it work?

Nationally and statewide, Republicans have put a lot of faith into Kemp's popularity as a way to get Walker across the goal line.

But Warnock has turned to high-profile politicians like Obama and celebrities including Stevie Wonder and America Ferrera to boost Democratic voter enthusiasm.

Democrats like Rose, the voter from Clayton, hope Republicans won't turn out for Walker. "I hope they've been convinced to stay home," said Rose, a customer support specialist for Venmo and Pay.

Warnock, Rose added, should let Walker "essentially let his own boat sink."

"The more he opens his mouth, the worse it is for him."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia Senate race between Walker and Warnock drawing record turnout