WOODSTOCK, Ga. — “You heard the story about the man who died early in life?” asked Herschel Walker. “Well, I’m gonna tell it to you anyway.”
Two hundred Georgians, huddled in a Black Rifle Coffee Company parking lot, heard the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate describe a dead man’s elevator tour of the afterlife. He traveled to hell, where there was “a party goin’ on,” then to heaven, where a duller crowd was “floatin’ around on clouds” and singing hymns.
Satan had “been campaigning,” said Walker, making eternal damnation look fun to dupe a lost soul into choosing it. Sen. Raphael Warnock was doing the same thing, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who supported the “treason” of covid-19 vaccine mandates and the madness of “putting men in women’s sports.”
Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff will determine the size of the Democrats’ U.S. Senate majority — another 50-50 tie that limits their influence, or a 51-49 advantage that would make Republicans less relevant. In the race’s closing days, Democrats out-spent Walker and built a lead in early voting, while Republicans asked voters who may not like their nominee to look past that and vote against the Biden agenda.
“Why the hell would you send Warnock to Washington to undercut everything that [Gov. Brian] Kemp is doing in Atlanta?” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham asked the crowd in Woodstock. When it was over, Graham joined Walker onstage for a friendly interview with Sean Hannity, the latest in a series of joint appearances between the candidate and his surrogates that he’s done in lieu of taking questions at his rallies.
Graham didn’t detail the accusations that have weakened Walker, like the abortions he denies paying for, or the threats against an ex-wife that Walker chalked up to his personal mental health struggles. But he reminisced about the fight to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, telling voters that there was “no bottom” to what liberals would say in order to smear a conservative.
Democrats are cautiously optimistic about the runoff after Walker ran 38,000 votes behind Warnock in the first round.
Polling has found a consistent, margin-of-error lead for the Democrat, and a much wider gulf in voters’ personal opinions of the candidates. On Friday, a CNN poll that put Warnock four points ahead found 50 percent of Georgia voters viewing him favorably, identical to the share of voters who told Nov. 8 exit pollsters that Warnock had “good judgment.” Just 39 percent of voters had a favorable view of Walker.
Warnock’s campaign has pressed that advantage every day, portraying Walker as a uniquely unqualified and dishonest right-winger who’d ban abortion and embarrass the state.
“We all know some folks in our lives who, we don’t wish them ill will, they say crazy stuff,” former President Barack Obama said at a Thursday night rally with Warnock in Atlanta, filling half of a rehabbed industrial complex that had been re-decorated with flags. “You don’t give them serious responsibility.”
The Republican finger-pointing over the Walker campaign began months ago, when his chief primary opponent said he’d lose to Warnock; it kept up through the early voting period, when outgoing Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan refused to vote for either candidate. But there’s a clear path to a possible Walker win.
The GOP needs to catch up on base turnout, which the Walker campaign believes it’s already doing, after Democrats — who won a lawsuit to get early voting options last weekend — dominated the first few days. It could convince some of the 200,000 Republicans who voted for Kemp, but not Walker, to grit their teeth and come back home for the runoff, along with some of the 81,000 voters who went for the Libertarian. On Monday, when early voting expanded, the highest turnout came in places where Walker had triumphed on Nov. 8, but the nearly 1.5 million Georgians who voted early were blacker and slightly younger than the electorate that voted early ahead of Nov. 8.
“We don’t march in a straight line,” state Sen. Randy Robertson told Walker’s supporters at another Thursday rally, in Columbus. “We don’t line up at church and get on a bus and let them drive us to the polls and let us vote for somebody who stands in the pulpit and advocates the murder of unborn children.”
Robertson had broached another reason the race has stayed close, with Walker as an underdog — a set of issues that helped the Democrats more than Republicans might have thought when the year began.
There was no mention of Warnock’s vote to codify gay marriage rights this week at Walker’s rallies, a demonstration of how some issues that made the GOP dominant in Georgia had faded. Warnock’s ads and speeches emphasized his vote for an insulin price cap and support for a child tax credit; Walker’s promise was to oppose the Biden agenda, full stop.
The takes can wait until the votes are in, but I’ve been struck here by how solid the 2020/2021 coalitions still are. Republicans won every statewide race but Walker’s last month, improving in suburbs but not winning them. Biden isn’t personally popular, but the agenda Warnock voted for isn’t toxic. I only heard one mention, on the trail, of Warnock’s gay marriage vote this week — a reference to him opposing an additional GOP religious liberty amendment this week. Eighteen years ago, Georgia voted to ban gay marriage by a 54-point margin. The electorate is now only marginally in favor of Republicans winning the Senate.
Room for Disagreement
Some observers think the real story is less Walker’s struggles and more that the Georgia GOP won its other statewide races, even after the Dobbs decision. Kemp’s clashes with Trump gave him more credibility with moderates, Eric Levitz writes in New York Magazine, which could be a danger sign for Democrats in 2024 and beyond. Less so if they’re facing Trump again.