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In increasingly purple Georgia, Senate runoff is a high-stakes final test

Republican Herschel Walker and Democrat Raphael G. Warnock push get-out-the-vote efforts, hoping turnout favors their side in Tuesday’s election

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)
correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Herschel Walker spoke on "Fox News Sunday." He spoke on "Sunday Morning Futures."

DULUTH, Ga. — Steve Williams is the type of voter Republicans have been working furiously to court over the past four weeks in Georgia’s Senate runoff race.

The 33-year-old laments high inflation and voted for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R). During an interview in a park here in Duluth, he criticized Democrats’ stance on “culture war” issues such as gender identity, which GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker has played up in campaign ads.

Yet Williams backed Democrat Raphael G. Warnock for Senate in November and plans to do so again on Tuesday. He said he wants to underscore a message that he thinks many voters sent this midterm cycle: Republicans “can’t expect us to vote for garbage candidates.”

Georgia remains “culturally red,” he said. But “we’re not just partisan machines.”

Democrats are hoping that many independents and Republicans will vote similarly on Tuesday, allowing the party to bolster their slim majority in the Senate. For both parties, the runoff election — triggered when neither Senate candidate won a majority of the vote in November — provides a final test of their ability to motivate their base and persuade the political middle in an increasingly purple state.

In Georgia runoff, GOP worries about Walker, Trump and party’s future

Republicans — who won fewer seats than they were expecting given that midterms historically favor the party out of power — hope to secure a clean sweep of the statewide races here. Four weeks of intensive campaigning hurtled to a close this weekend, with nearly 2 million votes already cast in early voting, which ended Friday.

Walker, a former football star, and Warnock, the incumbent and a pastor at a prominent, predominantly Black church in Atlanta, made their last pitches and pushed get-out-the-vote efforts this weekend, pressing their closing messages and blanketing the airwaves with ads.

Republicans are hoping their voters turn out in force in a rebuke to President Biden and Democratic policies, despite intense scrutiny of Walker’s personal history and criticisms he is not qualified for the job. He trailed the rest of Georgia’s GOP ticket on Nov. 8, garnering about 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp.

Georgia election results in the midterms

Speaking on Fox News on Sunday, Walker reiterated his promises to be a “check” on Biden. If he unseats Warnock, he said, Democrats will have less power in the Senate: committees, for instance, will remain evenly split between parties and Republicans will have more leverage to stall Democrats’ agenda.

A day earlier, Walker had erroneously proclaimed in an interview with Politico that GOP voters would be motivated to turn out because “they know right now that the House will be even.” It was one of many gaffes that have dogged Walker’s campaign. (Republicans won a narrow majority in the House this fall, while Democrats ensured they will hold at least 50 seats in the Senate, where Vice President Harris (D) can break ties.)

The stakes are high for both parties even with the Senate majority locked up. Key parts of Democrats’ agenda have run up against opposition from two members of their Senate caucus, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). The party will need every seat it can get heading into a challenging 2024 cycle — where Democrats will be defending seats in some states that decisively favored former president Donald Trump in recent elections. Winning a 51st seat would also mean that Democrats would not have to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, especially for Senate committee assignments.

“Anybody that cares if Republicans win the majority in 2024, the first one to compete for is this one,” Republican strategist Brad Todd said. Acknowledging GOP dismay at this year’s midterm results, he added: “It’s important to finish with a win.”

GOP voter George Dunn said he reluctantly cast another vote for Walker in the runoff despite concerns about the candidate because he wants to curtail Democrats’ power in Washington. Multiple women have accused Walker of domestic violence and two said he paid for their abortions despite his antiabortion views, something Walker denies. Walker has also faced some questions about his state of residence after public records showed he took a tax exemption on a Texas property meant for a primary home.

Dunn said it helped that Kemp went out to stump for Walker while Trump has kept his distance during the runoff.

“I made the decision that if Trump set foot in Georgia … I was out,” Dunn said.

Trump, however, has continued to make headlines as he rails against the 2020 election. That has drawn some rebukes, including in Georgia, where many Republicans believe Trump’s false election claims helped Democrats flip the Senate last year. On Saturday, the former president suggested terminating the Constitution if necessary to throw out his 2020 loss to Biden.

“It’s ridiculous,” Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling, a vocal critic of Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, said during a CNN interview. “It’s insane. To suspend the Constitution — come on, man, seriously?”

Warnock has focused his direct voter-contact program in 18 counties but also campaigned beyond them. He made one of his final campaign stops on Sunday in Gainesville, Ga., in an area that heavily favored Republicans last month. He has repeatedly cast the race as one about “competence and character,” and Democrats have spent much of their resources attacking Walker on that front.

Ads that aired during Saturday’s SEC championship football game in Atlanta highlighted allegations of domestic violence against Walker and ridiculed some of his confusing comments while on the campaign trail. GOP ads have praised Walker’s character, emphasized his support from fellow Republicans and opposition to Biden. One spot featured his former football coach at the University of Georgia, while another showed Kemp, the popular governor, saying he endorsed Walker because he won’t be “another rubber stamp for Joe Biden.”

Republicans have also increased their attacks on Warnock’s character, highlighting his ex-wife’s allegations that Warnock ran over her foot with a car during a dispute in 2020. Warnock has denied the claims. Police said officials did not find the ex-wife with visible injuries, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has put $2 million into canvassing efforts that use Kemp’s campaign infrastructure. Republicans view Kemp as Walker’s best advocate in the runoff; the governor campaigned apart from Walker while seeking reelection but now features in multiple ads for the Senate nominee.

What ticket-splitting in the midterms looked like

Walker, who will stump Monday in northern Georgia, was in Loganville, a city northeast of Atlanta, on Sunday. He was joined by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Scott faulted Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) for helping pass trillions in stimulus during the coronavirus pandemic, over GOP objections.

“Dear Lord, save us from the high IQ stupid people,” Kennedy said. “They may be smart, but they don’t have any sense.”

Pollsters and strategists said the GOP’s struggles in the Senate race — as other Georgia Republicans prevailed — echoed nationwide problems.

“Candidate quality really did seem to matter a lot to these voters,” said Bryan Bennett, a lead pollster for Democratic-aligned Navigator Research. In a recent Navigator focus group of split-ticket voters across states, which The Washington Post observed, one man from the Atlanta area said he backed Kemp and Warnock in part because of Democrats’ legislation to cap prescription drug prices, a key issue for his family.

While both parties have poured millions more into ads in the runoff, they say on-the-ground canvassing is especially important in this phase, as turnout is hard to predict. State election officials reported record-breaking levels of early voting last week, with more than 1.8 million people casting their ballots before Election Day.

Democrats say they are confident that they have Republicans outmatched on the ground and have also spent about twice as much as Republicans on ads in the runoff, according to the firm AdImpact. They were buoyed last week by strong turnout from Black voters central to their coalition in Georgia.

Yet Republicans also found hopeful signs in the turnout in GOP-dominated areas and are banking on a strong showing Tuesday because their voters have increasingly embraced Election Day voting. Republicans are also hoping to once again motivate White evangelical Christians, many of whom proudly supported Walker in November, to come out and vote in the runoff.

The Republican National Committee said it has 400 staffers and more than 85,000 volunteers working to get out the vote across the state’s 159 counties. “Republicans are not leaving any stone unturned,” said RNC spokeswoman Savannah Viar.

What Georgia’s past two Senate contests tell us about the runoff

Warnock’s field operation has more than 900 paid staffers, with 300 people added for the runoff, according to the campaign. A group connected to the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC last week said it was pumping about $11 million more into turnout.

Sitting with his dog in Duluth on Sunday, Greg Hood said he might not have made plans to cast a second vote for Warnock if Democrats’ turnout campaign was not so pervasive. Earlier that day, someone came to his door urging him to vote for the incumbent.

“He’s got an army out there,” Hood said.

Wells reported from Loganville, Ga.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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