Georgia Senate runoff: Campaigning reaches peak in final days

Georgia Senate runoff: Campaigning reaches peak in final days


ATLANTA — Republican Herschel Walker — known mostly for his stellar football career with the University of Georgia Bulldogs — posed for pictures with fans near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Down a street lined with signs reminding people of Election Day, a “Dawgs for Warnock” booth was giving out pins for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and urging people to get out the vote.

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.

And in ads that aired to millions of people watching the Southeastern Conference game Saturday night, Walker’s former football coach praised his “drive” and work ethic — while Democrats showed footage of voters reacting incredulously to Walker’s campaign musings, including comparing vampires and werewolves.

The viral comments were a turning point for Scott Hay, 55, who said he voted for Walker in November but regretted it after learning more about the GOP nominee, including allegations from his past. He will vote for Warnock on Tuesday.

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

The SEC championship game — just the latest intersection of sports and politics in Georgia — exemplifies the sprint to turn out primary voters and change minds in a close race that could soften the Democratic majority in the Senate. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is seeking his full six-year term after winning a runoff to replace a senator who resigned due to health issues. He finished about 1 percentage point ahead of Walker in the Nov. 8 general election, but fell just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to prevent 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 in the election officials said. On Friday, the voters also broke the national one a one-day record for early voting, over 350,000. With the vote still close, both parties say the race will depend on turnout and are investing in door-knocking, phone banking and last-minute campaign stops.

Even with tons of advertising and publicity, some Georgians at Saturday’s game were unaware of the runoff, reflecting the challenges of getting people to vote a second time.

“I don’t have time to follow all the news,” said Rico Hutchinson, 39, who said he doesn’t identify with any party and voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and Warnock in November. He didn’t know there were other choices.

Warnock rallied in the Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., areas on Saturday, touting his support for 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 the bus tour to a parking lot near the championship game, where some attendees were thrilled to bump into the football legend and shake his hand.

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

Asked to gauge Republican enthusiasm for a runoff, Renfroe simply said, “We’re praying.”

Republicans continued to vote for Walker as a voice against the Biden administration and hope that ongoing concerns about inflation and crime will continue to be a strong motivator. Touring the state, Walker said Warnock was a reliable voice for the Biden agenda and echoed the usual conservative criticism of “vigilance” in schools, sports and government institutions.

Democrats have attacked Walker, the front-runner, as unfit to serve in the Senate, amplifying campaign gaffes and highlighting incidents from his past. Multiple women accuse Walker of domestic violence Two ex-girlfriends claimed Walker paid for their abortions, even as the candidate pushed for 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 in both parties say the runoff brought a greater focus on the candidates themselves.

Democrats believe that’s good news for Warnock, who has tried to frame the contest around personal character and directly addressed Republicans sour on Walker.

“The ingredients that went into the Democratic turnout in November are still roughly there for Democratic-leaning voters in Georgia — at least in a much bigger way than for Republicans,” said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster who worked on the race for an outside group. She pointed to abortion as one issue that still motivates Democrats; Georgia has banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy returned last month after a court battle.

Republicans are hoping for a new vocal support from Governor Brian Kemp (R) will boost Walker, who has no other GOP candidates on the ballot to help turn out voters. Warnock ran ahead of other Democrats on the party ticket in November — Republicans won other statewide races. And about 200,000 people voted for Kemp but not Walker in the general election, in which Kemp defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams by nearly 8 points.

Saturday’s events underscored Democrats’ focus on Asian-American voters, who tend to vote Democratic and whose turnout jumped dramatically in recent years. Members of Congress such as Progressive Caucus Chairwoman 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 runs a national network of Asian-American groups heavily invested in the midterms. “We know it’s going to take phone and in-person contact to really get out the vote again,” said Belkin, executive director of the left-leaning Asian American Power Network.

The fight to ensure smooth elections and the broader struggle over access to the ballot defined much of the runoff. A judge ruled Friday that Cobb County, one of Georgia’s most populous counties, must extend the deadline for receiving some mail-in ballots after election workers failed to mail the forms by the legal deadline.

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

The county blamed both incidents on inexperienced and overworked staff, although it claimed that at the time the lawsuit was filed, all ballots had been mailed but not received due to postal service delays due to the Thanksgiving holiday. A county spokesman told The Washington Post that mailing ballots in accordance with the law “was not possible due to the Thanksgiving holiday combined with high demand.”

In a statement, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger condemned the judge’s decision, arguing that “changing state law at the request of political activists ahead of an election is a terrible idea.”

The state election board called an emergency session on Saturday to discuss whether to launch its own lawsuit if the deadline extension is blocked. It was one of the most significant proposals debated by the committee since the overhaul due to Georgia’s 2021 election law that removed the secretary of state from the post of chairman.

After an hour of debate, the state Board of Elections voted to open an investigation into Cobb County’s repeated election questions and oversee the lawsuit as it moves through the courts.

The video meeting ended abruptly when he was flooded with pornography.

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