The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate campaign hits fever pitch in final days of Georgia runoff

Supporters line up to meet and greet with Herschel Walker during a tailgate party outside Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game between the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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ATLANTA — Republican Herschel Walker — known largely for his star football career with the University of Georgia Bulldogs — took pictures with fans near Mercedes-Benz stadium. Down the street filled with signs reminding people about Election Day, a “Dawgs for Warnock” booth gave out pins for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and urged people to commit to voting.

Both campaigns took advantage of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game between Georgia and the Louisiana State University Tigers to appeal to voters ahead of Tuesday’s Senate runoff. In ads broadcast to millions of people watching the game, Walker’s former football coach praised his “drive” and work ethic — while Democrats showed footage of voters reacting with disbelief to Walker’s musings on the campaign trail, including a comparison of vampires and werewolves.

Those viral comments were a tipping point for Scott Hay, 55, who said he cast his ballot for Walker in November but has come to regret it, after learning more about the GOP candidate, including allegations from his past. He’ll vote for Warnock on Tuesday.

“I’m a Republican and I’ve never voted for anything but Republicans, and I cannot vote for Herschel Walker,” Hay said as he waited outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Backing Walker earlier this fall, Hay said, “I thought … I’m a Georgia fan. How bad can he be? Because I don’t like Warnock at all. But he’s pretty bad.”

The SEC Championship Game — just the latest intersection of Georgia sports and politics — exemplified the sprint to turn out base voters and change some minds in a close race that could cushion Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is seeking his a full, six-year term after winning a runoff to replace a senator who stepped down amid health problems. He finished about 1 percentage point ahead of Walker in the Nov. 8 general election, but fell just short of the 50 percent threshold required to avert a runoff.

More than 1.8 million Georgians — just over a quarter of active voters — cast ballots during the early voting period that ended Friday, election officials said. Voters on Friday also smashed the state’s single-day record for early ballots, topping 350,000. With polling still close, both parties say the race will hinge on turnout and are pouring resources into door knocking, phone banking and last minute campaign stops.

Even with a barrage of ads and outreach, some Georgians at Saturday’s game were unaware of the runoff, reflecting the challenges of getting people out to vote a second time.

“I don’t have time to follow all the news,” said Rico Hutchinson, 39, who said he does not identify with one party and voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and Warnock in November. He didn’t realize there was a second election.

Warnock rallied in the Atlanta area and Augusta, Ga., on Saturday, highlighting his support from labor groups and holding an evening event aimed at Asian American voters, a fast-growing group that both parties have courted this election cycle. Walker took his bus tour to a parking lot near the championship game, where some attendees were thrilled to stumble upon the football legend and shake his hand.

Lisa Renfroe, a 46-year-old dental hygienist, dismissed the “smear ads” against Walker and said voters “need to focus on the future.” She had stopped by Walker’s event near the stadium with her husband and young sons, one of whom had “Run Herschel Run” stickers on his hands.

Asked to gauge Republican enthusiasm for the runoffs, Renfroe simply said, “We pray.”

Republicans have continued to pitch a vote for Walker as a vote against the Biden administration and are hoping that persistent concerns with inflation and crime remain potent motivators. Stumping around the state, Walker has cast Warnock as a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda and echoed common conservative criticisms of “wokeness” in schools, sports and government institutions.

Democrats have attacked Walker, a first-time candidate, as unfit to serve in the Senate, amplifying gaffes from the campaign trail and highlighting incidents from his past. Multiple women have accused Walker of domestic violence Two ex-girlfriends have alleged that Walker paid for their abortions, though the candidate has advocated expansive bans on the procedure. Walker denies their claims. The candidate has spoken about his mental health struggles and calls himself a changed man.

With the race no longer determining control of the Senate — Democrats secured their 50th seat in November — operatives of both parties said the runoff has brought more focus on the candidates themselves.

Democrats believe that’s good news for Warnock, who has sought to frame the contest around personal character and appealed directly to Republicans squeamish about Walker.

“The ingredients that went into Democrats showing up in November are all still roughly there for Democratic inclined voters in Georgia — at least in a much larger way than they are for Republicans,” argued Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster who has worked on the race for an outside group. She pointed to abortion as one issue that it still motivating for Democrats; Georgia’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy was reinstated last month after a court battle.

Republicans hope that newly vocal support from Gov. Brian Kemp (R) will boost Walker, who no longer has other GOP candidates on the ballot to help turn out voters. Warnock ran ahead of other Democrats on the party’s ticket in November — Republicans swept the other statewide races. And about 200,000 people voted for Kemp but not Walker in the general election, in which Kemp beat Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams by nearly 8 points.

Saturday’s events highlighted Democrats’ focus on Asian American voters, who tend to vote Democratic and whose turnout has spiked dramatically in recent years. Members of Congress such as progressive caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) joined Asian American community leaders and celebrities such as actor Daniel Dae Kim at Chinatown Mall in Chamblee, an Atlanta suburb.

One group, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, is working to knock on more than 70,000 doors and call more than 250,000 Asian American voters, said Nadia Belkin, who leads a national network of Asian American groups heavily invested in the midterms. “We know that it’s going to take touches on the phone and in person to really get out the vote again,” said Belkin, the executive director of the left-leaning Asian American Power Network.

A scramble to ensure smooth elections and a broader fight over access to the ballot has defined much of the runoff election. A judge on Friday ruled that Cobb County, one of Georgia’s most populous, must extend the deadline to receive some mail ballots after election workers did not send out the forms in the time frame required by law.

According to the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several Cobb residents, Cobb had failed to mail over 3,400 absentee ballots to voters who’d requested them. The county had also failed to mail more than 1,000 absentee ballots in the general election due to an administrative error.

The county has blamed both incidents on an inexperienced and overworked staff, though it has argued that when the lawsuit was brought all the ballots had been mailed but not received because of delays in postal service due to the Thanksgiving holiday. A spokesperson for the county told The Washington Post that sending out ballots in accordance with the law “wasn’t possible due to the Thanksgiving holiday combined with high demand.”

In a statement, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger denounced the judge’s ruling, arguing that “changing state law at the request of political activists on the eve of an election is a horrible idea.”

On Saturday, the state election board called an emergency session to debate whether to bring its own lawsuit in the case to stop the extension of the deadline. It was one of the most significant motions the board has debated since its overhaul due to Georgia’s 2021 election law that removed the secretary of state as chair.

After an hour of debate, the state election board voted to open an investigation into Cobb County over repeated issues in its elections and monitor the lawsuit as it makes it way through the courts.

The video meeting ended abruptly when it was flooded by pornography.