Rivals in Georgia’s Senate, with little time left, are sprinting for drain


Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) speaking during a campaign at Morehouse College in Atlanta, on Nov. 13, 2022. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

ATLANTA — While Republicans steamrolled over a disappointing midterm performance last week, Herschel Walker wanted to talk about a completely different topic: vampires and werewolves.

“A werewolf can kill a vampire, did you know that?” Walker, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Georgia, solicited supporters in suburban Atlanta and told a story about a movie he had recently seen to make a point about having faith. “I never knew that. So I didn’t want to be a vampire anymore. I wanted to be a werewolf.”

With nearly every other midterm election decided, Walker and his Democratic rival, Senator Raphael Warnock, are still in full campaign mode. That short timeline, which Georgia Republicans tightened last year after losing the towering runoff election of early 2021, forces both sides to scramble to buy more ads, mobilize hundreds of new staff and arrange visits from national allies .

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The stakes remain high, even as Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured the party would retain the Senate. A win by Warnock, who narrowly defeated Walker on November 8 but failed to reach the 50% threshold needed to win outright, would give his party an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

With those variables in mind and little time to tweak strategy, both candidates sound largely the same. Walker sticks to his twisty, anecdotal-filled and sometimes bizarre campaign speeches, peppered with criticism of his opponent. Warnock continues to portray Walker as unfit for office, using the more than $20 million he and related groups have poured into advertising to castigate his rival on the air.

“He has neither the competence nor the character,” Warnock said at a news conference last week. “He has shown that not only is he not aware of the issues, he doesn’t seem very interested.”

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Warnock’s campaign aims to overthrow Georgia’s Democratic base while gaining support from people who voted for Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, but did not support Walker, particularly those in the Atlanta suburbs. The campaign also aims to cut Walker’s gains in conservative counties he narrowly won.

However, Walker spends the run-off period closing that gap in support between his campaigns and Kemp’s. In the past two weeks, he has spent more time campaigning in the Atlanta suburbs, where many educated conservatives live.

His campaign has also increased negative ads about Warnock and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Democrat serves as senior pastor, and amplified stories about low-income tenants being evicted from an apartment building owned by a for-profit entity linked to the church.

The four-week timeline of the two parties is shorter than nine weeks during the 2020 runoff cycle, a change made under the landmark voting bill passed by Georgia’s Republican state legislators last year. Early voting in most counties runs weekdays after Thanksgiving.

“It’s really a continuation of the general election,” said DeKalb County Republican Party chairman Marci McCarthy, who helps coordinate turnout for Walker’s campaign. This second round, she said, feels very different from the early 2021 races, which “felt like a separate election.”

As for the stump, Walker has yet to mention former President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of a third presidential campaign, and he has avoided the Republican power struggle in Washington that has drawn national attention and resources away from his race. His campaign maintains its habit of shunning the news media: It has now held more than two dozen events in which Walker failed to answer reporters’ questions. Walker representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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The most notable changes are the candidates’ efforts to engage voters. In the days following the general election, Kemp, who won re-election with relative ease, turned his campaign’s door-knocking and recruiting operation, employing nearly 200 personnel, into a turnout team for Walker. The team is now funded by the Senate Leadership Fund, the leading super PAC for Senate Republicans. The Republican National Committee has also sent 400 field workers to the state to engage voters.

For his part, Warnock has added field offices and 300 paid staffers to its out-of-vote operation, bringing the total number of staffers to more than 900, according to the campaign. The new field operation will be concentrated in both Metro Atlanta counties and those in South and Central Georgia.

Both sides are working to educate voters about the changes coming under Georgia’s new electoral law. The shortened runoff period means that Georgians who were not registered to vote before Election Day will not be able to vote during the second round.

And the law has made early second-round voting difficult. State election officials initially said early voting could not be held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, due to a previous 2016 law that limits early voting one or two days after a holiday. But Democrats, including Warnock’s campaign, sued to allow voting on Saturday, and on Friday a Fulton County judge ordered that voting be allowed on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

“The need to organize really remains the same, frankly,” said Jonae Wartel, a Democratic strategist who led Warnock’s 2020 runoff election. “You just have a shortened timeline.”

Yet similar patterns have emerged: A carousel of Republican senators and party leaders have once again traveled to Georgia to support Walker’s campaign, even as they try to prevent Trump from bringing his presidential campaign to Peach State.

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Florida Senator Rick Scott, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm, appeared with Walker during the early days of the runoff election and explained to voters that while control of the Senate had already been decided, an additional Republican seat in the room would still be a boon to the party.

For Democrats, Trump’s announcement of a 2024 campaign has provided an opening to tie the former president to Walker, whom he supported. A television commercial for Warnock that ran in the Atlanta market showed footage of Trump’s speech on Tuesday night, in which he encouraged supporters to vote for Walker. At the end of the ad, the words “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker” flash across the screen.

For the Walker campaign, Kemp is one of the most important surrogates, especially among moderate and conservative-minded voters who supported the governor’s reelection but did not vote for Walker on November 8. The two will campaign together in a suburb of Atlanta on Saturday. Warnock, on the other hand, will spend the day in the deep red counties of Forsyth and Cherokee, which voted overwhelmingly for Kemp and Walker.

The campaigns’ efforts have not taken the pressure off third-party organizers who work to incentivize voters. LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the voter mobilization group Black Voters Matter, who helped elect Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff in the 2021 runoff, described Georgia’s abbreviated runoff as a nightmare and referred to the time loop of “Dr. . Foreign.”

“The short time also creates room for confusion,” she said, adding that her group and several others had fewer resources to mobilize new and unlikely voters than they did two years ago. “It’s almost like the chaos is the point.”

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