Walker, Warnock close Senate runoff with divergent strategies

Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock

ATHENS – With the last battle of the 2022 election on the line, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker made a final, fevered weekend push to voters in smaller towns, bustling cities and quiet neighborhoods around Georgia.

Warnock campaigned across Atlanta, Augusta and Gainesville. He squeezed in his other day job with a Sunday sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“You’re going to vote for somebody whose last name begins with a ‘W.’ Just make sure you vote. Because a vote is a way to pray, and to prophesize about God’s vision for the world,” Warnock said.

Then he rallied with students at the University of Georgia Sunday night where he extolled the football exploits of his opponent, who led the school to the national championship in 1980.

“But we’re on a different field,” Warnock said.

“Georgia needs a true champion and when it comes to standing up for those who are on the margins of the margins, I am the SEC champion,” he said.

Walker, meanwhile, held just one public event in Loganville on Sunday afternoon where he was joined by Republican U.S. Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Each of them framed the race as crucial to reigning in Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Warnock, who they described as far left and out of touch with Georgia voters.

“We don’t need followers no more,” Walker told the crowd. “So, he’s been following around Joe Biden.”

Marcus Sisco is a detailer at the Chevrolet dealership where the rally was held, and he walked over to hear from the Walker. Sisco said he was torn between the Republican, who he agrees with on issues like guns, and Warnock, whose abortion stance he most aligns with.

As he listened to Walker, Sisco liked what he heard. But he said he was likely going to sit out the election all together.

The day before, the Heisman Trophy winner took pictures with fans outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium before Saturday’s SEC title game. But he didn’t make a speech.

It was the second weekend in a row that Walker kept a limited schedule. But in his remarks, he urged the party’s faithful to get their friends, relatives and neighbors to the polls to overcome an apparent Democratic advantage in early voting.

Meanwhile, Warnock met with various constituent groups through the weekend. He started Saturday with a rally hosted by the nation’s biggest labor unions and ended with an event at a concert hall targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks a Labor for Warnock rally in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And away from the campaign trail, thousands of canvassers continued painstaking work to personally connect with Georgians. The campaigns and their allies have knocked on millions of doors, and tallied millions more calls and text messages, pleading for votes.

More than 1.8 million voters have already cast ballots, shattering early voting records for a midterm in Georgia. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said on Sunday that 26% of active Georgia voters have already voted.

The early-voting electorate seems to favor Warnock, whose campaign has poured in resources to mobilize likely voters and those that are harder to reach. Early voting in Democratic strongholds far outpace early voting in GOP-leaning areas, and Black voters turned out at high levels.

The Democrat has also been aided by recent errors by Walker, including bizarre statements on the campaign trail about horror movie villains. And victories that sealed a Democratic majority in the Senate deprived Walker of an argument that the runoff race could swing control of the chamber.

Holt Geiger drove over from Monroe for Walker’s rally Sunday; he has supported him ever since the primaries. Geiger said Walker represents the Christian values he holds dear, and most of his friends and family feel the same way. What others perceive as the candidate’s missteps haven’t phased Geiger.

“I think a lot of what is being said, it’s dirty politics and being taken out of context,” he said.

Even the most optimistic Warnock allies acknowledge Walker still has a path to victory on Tuesday. Republicans usually outpace Democrats in election day voting and the GOP is banking on high turnout from supporters to oust the incumbent.

Both rivals tried to leverage the popularity of Georgia’s top-ranked football team. While Walker greeted fans outside Mercedes-Benz, TV viewers of the game saw ads touting the late coach Vince Dooley’s endorsement of the Republican and another invoking Walker’s history of violence.

While Democrats have already clinched a majority in the U.S. Senate, the fight for the 51st seat still has high stakes. A Warnock win would allow the party to rip up a power-sharing agreement over committee control and grant the party more wiggle room to pursue legislative priorities.

And at the Midtown Atlanta rally for Warnock on Saturday night, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff hearkened to the dual runoffs that he and Warnock swept in January 2021 to flip control of the chamber.

“It all comes down to Tuesday,” said Ossoff. “The whole nation is watching us. But we’ve been here before.”