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Obama returns to Georgia to rally support for Warnock in tight runoff race

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Atlanta for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock ahead of Tuesday's runoff election. (Audra Melton for The Washington Post)
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ATLANTA — Former president Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail Thursday night for a rally aimed at energizing Democratic voters in Georgia to head back to the polls to support Sen. Raphael G. Warnock in his runoff battle against Republican Herschel Walker.

In his second trip to the Peach State this election cycle, Obama urged a crowd of about 5,000 supporters to do their part to ensure the senator is reelected to represent Georgia for a full, six-year term. He emphasized the importance of Democrats securing a 51st vote in the upper chamber and said Georgians “deserve a senator you can be proud of.”

The former president said Walker has a history of telling “boldfaced lies.” He also made reference to a viral clip of a recent speech the former football star made while on the campaign trail in which he talked about watching a film about “vampires versus werewolves” and concluded that he would rather be a werewolf.

“As far as I’m concerned, he can be anything he wants to be, except a United States senator,” Obama said, prompting laughter and applause from the crowd. He added: “This would be funny if he wasn’t running for Senate.”

Warnock on Thursday offered his strongest rebuke yet of Walker moments before Obama took the stage at the rally. On the campaign trail, Warnock has frequently said the race is about “character and competence,” and in the final days of the general-election campaign and weeks leading up to the runoff he has criticized Walker as unfit to be a U.S. senator.

On Dec. 6 Georgia voters will decide who represents them in the Senate between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican Herschel Walker. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

“If we’re honest, I believe in my soul that Georgia knows that Georgia is better than Herschel Walker,” Warnock said, as he was met with loud cheers from the crowd.

During his remarks, Obama paused multiple times to engage with a member of the audience: a 4-year-old whose voice at times could be heard in the large crowd. At one point, the little boy said: “We’ve got the power.”

“He’s only 4 and he’s making sense,” Obama responded, later saying the boy was clearly “getting straight A’s” in school.

At the end of the rally, Obama tied the stakes of the race back to the small child, saying if everyone worked hard to reelect Warnock “we will be setting an example for a 4-year-old right here and laying a foundation for him to build on.”

Obama has been widely viewed as the surrogate of choice for Democratic candidates across the country in the midterms. He is the most high-profile Democrat to stump for Warnock, who has had few national members of his party join him on the campaign trail.

By contrast, top Republicans have been descending on the state throughout the general election and the runoff to try to boost Walker, a Georgia football legend whose candidacy has been beset with controversy.

Obama’s visit comes in the final days of one of the most contentious, tight and expensive Senate races this year. Both parties have spent aggressively to boost their candidates in the general election and now the runoff. It’s the final Senate contest and could strengthen Democrats’ majority in the upper chamber.

Neither President Biden nor former president Donald Trump, who encouraged Walker to challenge Warnock, is expected to come to Georgia before Tuesday’s election.

Warnock received about 36,000 more votes than Walker during the general election, but fell short of garnering the 50 percent needed to win outright under Georgia law, triggering the runoff election. Obama’s mission on Thursday was to energize the Democratic base, as early voting ends Friday. More than 1.1 million Georgians had voted in the runoff as of Thursday morning, and daily in-person early turnout has been at historic highs.

“Obama is by far the most popular and influential Democrat nationally that we have. Him coming can only increase enthusiasm and focus attention on the task at hand, which is to get as many people as possible” out to vote, said Michael Thurmond, chief executive of DeKalb County and a Democrat. “You could have no better surrogate and motivator in chief coming to Georgia.”

Walker, for his part, has frequently appeared at campaign events and in TV interviews flanked by Republican lawmakers and leaders ahead of the general election and again for the runoff. His campaign has been dogged by allegations of violence and domestic abuse, and that he paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions, even as he has campaigned as a staunch opponent of abortion. In the final days of the campaign, he has faced renewed questions about his residency status in Texas and Georgia.

Walker on Thursday had been scheduled to campaign with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, but Walker’s campaign said Pompeo was unable to make it due to a family emergency. In recent weeks, Walker has campaigned with Republicans, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rick Scott (Fla.) and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, some of whom have visited the state multiple times to stand with him.

Following a campaign stop in Powder Springs, about 20 miles west of Atlanta, last week, Cruz told reporters part of the reason so many Republicans were flocking to Georgia was because of the importance of keeping the Senate 50 to 50.

“There is a big difference between a 50-50 Senate, which is what we have if Herschel wins. … If the Democrats grow their majority, they get a majority on every single committee,” Cruz said, explaining that such an advantage would allow Democrats to expedite their priorities, including approving judicial picks.

Warnock and Walker have been making a clear play for the more than 200,000 general-election voters who supported Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for reelection but did not vote for Walker. Warnock’s campaign has used Kemp-Warnock voters to tout his candidacy in their ads. Walker’s campaign and Republican groups have been emphasizing support from Kemp, who decisively defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams and largely kept his distance from Walker during the general election. Kemp appeared at a rally with Walker earlier this month and has been used in TV and mail ads supporting the former Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia.

Ahead of his Thursday visit, Obama recorded a television ad in support of Warnock, who is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor during the civil rights movement.

The former president was not the only Obama to wade in the Georgia runoff. Former first lady Michelle Obama taped two robocalls urging voters to cast their ballots. One is aimed at early voting and the other is an Election Day reminder for Georgians who haven’t voted by then.

“This election is going to be very close, and there are a lot of folks on the other side hoping you stay home,” the former first lady said in the early-voting robocall. “But we need you to get out and vote one more time for Raphael G. Warnock.”

A Warnock campaign spokesperson shared that not all of Warnock’s surrogates have taken the stage for rallies with him — with many instead being deployed in other ways to mobilize voters across the state. The surrogates have launched canvasses, led phone banks, produced digital content and conducted radio and television interviews in an effort to increase turnout across Georgia, the spokesperson said.

Republicans have sought to tie Warnock to Biden, who has faced low approval ratings. Walker repeatedly mentions in his campaign speeches that Warnock “votes with Biden 96 percent of the time.”

The White House has not announced any plans to travel to Georgia and declined to comment on Biden’s plans beyond highlighting a fundraiser he will attend in Boston on Friday in support of Warnock. Biden will appear at the fundraiser alongside Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Edward J. Markey (Mass.). Warnock will remain in Georgia to campaign.

Trump may hold a tele-rally for Walker but does not plan to campaign for him in Georgia, according to Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal conversations. They said teams for Walker and Trump agreed it wouldn’t be helpful.

This week, Warnock and Walker have been crisscrossing the state for final rallies to drum up excitement ahead of Tuesday. On Friday, Walker will make stops for his “Evict Warnock” bus tour in Warner Robins and Valdosta. Warnock will campaign in Hinesville and his hometown of Savannah.

Warnock also has received support from the entertainment community. Earlier this week, singer Dave Matthews headlined a concert for Warnock. The senator’s campaign sent an email to supporters on Sunday with singer-songwriter John Legend urging them to help Warnock, as “the future of our democracy is at stake in this race.”

On Wednesday night, while Warnock was hosting a rally in Columbus, Georgia Democrats held an event in Atlanta aimed at getting Latino voters out to the polls. Actors America Ferrera and Tessa Thompson and former congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who was the first South American-born immigrant elected to the House, spoke at the event.

“Every single one of us in this room is a massive influence on our circles, in your workplace, in your families, in your classrooms,” Ferrera said to a crowd of dozens of Latino Warnock supporters as they ate pupusas at a local Latino-owned brewery. “We need to do the work of talking about the incredible representation that Senator Warnock has done for our community, how the work he has pushed forward impacts our community.”

Over the weekend, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) came to Georgia to make campaign stops with Warnock, who has also campaigned with Georgia Democrats such as Rep. Hank Johnson and Sen. Jon Ossoff. Warnock and Ossoff both won their Senate seats in the 2021 runoffs. Warnock captured the seat that was up for a special election after Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped down in 2019 over health issues. Ossoff flipped the seat that had been held by Sen. David Perdue (R) for a full six-year term that is up in 2026.

Supporters at Warnock’s Thursday night rally praised Obama for his return to Georgia and emphasized that an all-hands-on-deck effort is necessary with less than a week until the runoff.

“Listen, I mean, Obama is definitely part of the reason I’m here,” said Rene Brinkley, a Warnock supporter from Atlanta. “But Obama can’t vote in Georgia, I can.”

Brinkley said it’s important that Democrats pull out all the stops ahead of the runoff — and Obama is a big draw. “He’s kind of like a rock star, and he can get the crowd out, get the crowd going, get the crowd excited and kind of help further explain why it’s important that the Democrats retake the Senate,” she said.

Dylan Wells, Hannah Knowles and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.