ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock has built up an advantage in Georgia’s record-breaking early vote, putting Republican Herschel Walker in a position where he’ll need to deliver big on Election Day to win in Tuesday’s Senate runoff.
Georgians have been bombarded with TV ads, radio messages, direct mail and ceaseless fundraising appeals in the closely watched Senate race. Many of them are ready for it to be over.
“It’s been very, very exhausting,” said Ana Gomez, a sophomore at Georgia Tech who attended Warnock's rally on campus Monday.
Over the long and grueling campaign, the two candidates have employed different strategies, with Warnock putting a premium on appeals to moderates and independents as Walker seeks to energize the Republican base in this former GOP stronghold.
On the airwaves, Warnock and his Democratic allies have outspent Republicans since the Nov. 8 general election.
But on the final day before the runoff, it was all about juicing turnout as each candidate held a packed schedule of events, focusing on areas where they have the strongest voter appeal.
Warnock hosted events in the Atlanta area with Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., as well as 25-year-old Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., and the rapper Killer Mike, before finishing with an evening rally in the heart of the city.
“Seeing what Herschel Walker has said and the approach that he takes with his campaigning — to me, it just seems like a very obvious choice,” said Gomez, who said she plans to vote for Warnock on Tuesday. “What I really appreciate about Warnock is that he tries to appeal to both sides.”
Meanwhile, Walker held a series of rallies in the rural outskirts of the city, where he needs to run up the score to withstand the onslaught of Democratic votes in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and closed with an evening rally in suburban Cobb County.
“Everyone says: Gosh, why did Herschel get in this? What has this been like for me?” Walker’s wife, Julie Blanchard, said to a crowd on Monday. “And you know what? Our country’s worth it. It doesn’t matter what it’s like. It doesn’t matter if you get attacked.”
“He loves this country. He loves God. And he wants to fight for our country,” she said. “We don’t want to wake up like Venezuela.”
Warnock is entering the runoff from a position of strength. He leads among likely voters by 4 percentage points in a CNN poll published Friday, and by 5 points in a UMass Lowell poll out Monday.
An early vote that topped 1.85 million showed other positive signs for Warnock, with Democrats enjoying a 13-point edge — larger than the party’s 8-point lead in November’s early vote, according to TargetSmart’s model.
But Walker is widely expected to win more of the votes cast on Election Day. The question is whether he’ll win it by a wide enough margin to overcome his deficit heading into Tuesday.
Robert Trim, a Cobb County Republican who ran unsuccessfully for a state house seat last month, said he’ll vote for Walker on Tuesday, because a 50th GOP seat is “critically important” for committee power and denying Democrats unilateral subpoena authority.
But Trim conceded he’s pessimistic about Walker’s chances, comparing his run to former Republican Sen. David Perdue's failed runoff bid in 2020, when he lost to Ossoff.
“I don’t feel very confident,” Trim said in an interview. “I never have felt confident in where he’s positioned. So I’m probably less confident now than I was before.”
He said Democrats clinching Senate control “probably does sap some energy” because “most voters don’t understand” why an extra seat for the GOP minority changes the dynamics in Washington.
On TV, Walker is running an ad that shows him standing with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who handily won his re-election bid last month. Kemp is a foe of former President Donald Trump, whose early endorsement of Walker propelled him in the Senate race. But Trump, who became the first Republican to lose Georgia since 1992, has not campaigned for Walker in the runoff.
Walker “needs to win Election Day by double digits,” said Cody Hall, an adviser to Kemp, who said the Republican candidate will have to outperform his advantage from November's Election Day. “He’s gonna need to do better than that margin, which his team realizes.”
“Yes, the early voting looks good for Warnock,” Hall told NBC News. “But I would just caution everyone that base Republican voters in the last couple of cycles have liked turning out on Election Day. And I think that is going to benefit Herschel.”
Walker has struggled with independent voters, losing them by 11 points in the general election, according to NBC News exit polls.
He has sought to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden, who is unpopular in the state, and blame the two of them for rising costs and crime. On the campaign trail, Walker has leaned into cultural conservatism, blasting “wokeness” in Washington, the teaching of “critical race theory,” objecting to transgender athletes and inveighing against pronoun use in the military.
“Why are they bringing pronouns in our military? Pronouns? What the heck is a pronoun?” Walker told a crowd Sunday in Loganville. “I’m sick and tired of that pronoun stuff. Aren’t y’all sick and tired of that pronoun stuff? So why don’t we call this senator former senator? That’s his pronoun.”
Warnock has built his candidacy on a promise to work across the aisle with Republicans. Recently he has portrayed Walker as “woefully unfit” for the job, telling Georgians that he “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
On Monday, he told MSNBC's Joy Reid in Atlanta: “Given my opponent, this race is not even about Republican versus Democrat, red versus blue, right versus left. It’s right versus wrong, and I think people see that.”
The runoff election will be Warnock’s fifth time on the ballot in Georgia in about two years — one Democratic primary, two general elections and two runoffs. He won a special election in 2020 to capture the seat for two years, and the 2022 race will decide who holds it for the next six years.
“I started on this journey to the Senate about three years ago. And now there’s only one day left,” he said Monday at Georgia Tech. “But it all really comes down to this. We need you to show up. Are you ready to win this election?”
Walker also urged Georgians to cast their ballots on Tuesday, telling Sean Hannity on Fox News Monday night that his message to voters was: "If you don’t vote, you’re going to get more of Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden.”
While Biden has stayed away from Georgia, Warnock has received reinforcements from former President Barack Obama, who has visited Atlanta twice to rally voters for the state’s first Black senator. Frost, who was just elected and will be the first Gen Z member of Congress, rallied for him Monday.
“This isn’t a two-year term. This is six years of power — of a Black reverend organizer in the U.S. Senate for six years. So anyone who says it doesn’t matter is out of touch with the realities of what’s going on now,” Frost said in an interview. “It’s a numbers game in the United States Congress, and every number matters.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com