U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker awoke on Sunday to a different political landscape that reconfigures the strategies of their Senate runoff after Democrats captured a hard-fought seat in Nevada that sealed the party’s control of the chamber.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s narrow victory means the Georgia race will no longer determine the balance of power or hold the key to President Joe Biden’s agenda the next two years.
But on the campaign trail on Sunday, over the airwaves and on social media feeds, the rivals and their supporters pressed the case to voters that the Dec. 6 overtime bout was more than an afterthought to Democrats or a consolation prize to Republicans.
In urgent messages to left-leaning voters, Warnock’s allies framed his race as a crucial 51st vote to better insulate Democrats from the whims of U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two moderate Democrats who have opposed key liberal legislation.
“It’s pretty clear an extra Senate vote would have been helpful to Democrats over the last two years,” said Jen Psaki, a former Biden aide who called Warnock a “massive star” and said his vote would also bolster the party ahead of a more forbidding Senate landscape in 2024.
Walker’s supporters, meanwhile, brushed aside concerns that his base would be less intense now that one of his core arguments — that a vote for Walker would flip the chamber — is off the table.
“This is about who is going to represent Georgia. It’s an issue of who Georgians want to represent them,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview.
“Do they want someone who votes almost 100% of the time with (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer or someone who is going to represent the state?”
And ahead of an international summit in Cambodia, Biden expressed confidence of Warnock’s chances while urging Democrats not to let up.
“It’s always better with 51, because we’re in a situation where you don’t have to have an even makeup of the committees. And so that’s why it’s important, mostly,” the president said. “But it’s just simply better. The bigger the numbers, the better.”
‘Prosecuting the case’
The candidates themselves made little note of developments that began Friday when tallies showed Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly winning another term in Arizona and continued Saturday with Masto’s victory.
Those wins put Democrats in line to retain control of a 50-50 chamber, since Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote. They also help provide the president more leeway to press his priorities — and avoids a scenario where Republicans could block the president’s judicial appointments.
Appearing at his alma mater, Morehouse College, on Sunday, Warnock said his message would remain the same: Walker is a liar who isn’t equipped for the job.
“This election is about who’s ready and who’s fit to serve the people in Georgia in the U.S. Senate,” Warnock said. “It’s a race about competence and character. And on both of those scores there is a world of difference between me and Herschel Walker, and so I look forward to prosecuting that case over the next few weeks.”
Credit: Jason Getz /AJC
Credit: Jason Getz /AJC
In Peachtree City, Walker delivered the same stump speech he deployed before the midterm, which ended with Warnock narrowly ahead of his rival despite other statewide Democrats losing by big margins. Neither reached the majority-vote threshold needed to avoid a Dec. 6 runoff.
The Republican knocked Warnock and other Democrats for transgender policies and blamed Biden for decades-high inflation.
“You’ve got to remember that a house divided cannot stand. And that’s what Sen. Warnock wants to do. He wants to divide you because he can get your vote,” said Walker, adding: “But let me tell you what: He represents himself. That’s all he does.”
Their back-and-forth came amid concerns from senior party officials the weekend developments would blunt turnout by making Georgia’s runoff less consequential.
Warnock stressed the need for high early-vote turnout at a charity event hosted by the rapper Lil Baby. Speaking to the crowd, which was almost entirely Black, the Democrat accused officials of “already playing games.”
He was referring to a state law that early voting won’t be allowed on the Saturday before the runoff in because it’s the day after the state holiday formerly known as Robert E. Lee’s Birthday and two days after Thanksgiving.
“So, you can’t vote because of Robert E. Lee’s birthday,” Warnock told the crowd.
Interviews with Republican voters in Peachtree City also revealed concerns that many Walker supporters would be less enthusiastic about the post-Thanksgiving vote.
Walker survived a chaotic campaign where he was faced a string of allegations, including threats of violence against his wife and claims by two former girlfriends who said the the staunch abortion opponent pressured them to have abortions. Walker denied the accusations.
Tandy Bartkowicz was among the Republicans worried that a runoff untethered to control of the Senate would sap energy from the GOP base.
“I thought it would, but this crowd is proof that people are still energized,” she said of the large gathering that spilled into the parking lot outside a Peachtree City brewery. “We still want him to go to Washington.”
Credit: Daniel Varnado
Credit: Daniel Varnado
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com