SMYRNA, Ga. – A record-breaking early vote has ended in Georgia and the two candidates in a bitterly contested Senate race make their final pitches in the final sprint to Election Day.
The contest will test the Democratic-friendly drift in this former Republican stronghold, which voted two years ago for President Joe Biden and two Democratic senators. Now one of those senators, Raphael Warnock, is fighting for his political life in a more difficult environment for his party against GOP rival Herschel Walker, a former soccer star embroiled in controversy.
More than 2.5 million Georgians have already voted by mail or early in person, set a new record. According to the NBC News early vote tracker, 49% are registered Democrats and 42% Republicans; 70% of them are 50 years or older and 56% are women.
along the piece, recent opinion polls Walker closes the gap to a statistic dead heat as Biden’s low approval rating and economic pain create headwinds for Warnock and Democratic candidates to navigate battlefield states across the country.
Walker’s closing TV ad”PowerfulIn heavy rotation on the airwaves in Georgia, Biden takes center stage, calling him “a failing president” for a live camera shot of Walker claiming “families were stronger” two years ago before he went along.
“You went to Washington to say you’re going to represent Georgia and you decide to represent Joe Biden,” Walker said of Warnock at a Thursday meeting at a strip mall in this city just outside of Atlanta. “You went to Washington and said you’re going to represent the people, yet you voted with him 96% of the time.”
Warnock closes this cycle by pointing out his drive to cut costs and his two-pronged vows to “work with everyone if it helps Georgia.” He has also escalated his attack on Walker as unqualified to be a senator, citing accusations from women he dated that he made violent threats and incited them to have an abortion (which he denies).
“I think the people of Georgia are excited. And they see the differences between me and my opponent. I can tell you there is no comparison at all,” Warnock told reporters during a recent campaign shutdown. “Character is important. And this is someone who has shown that not only is he not ready for the job, he is also not fit.”
The election is testing a series of counter-currents within the Peach State. Will Republican rural areas see a strong rise? Will the Democrats continue the show of power at the ballot box they delivered in the recent election? Will the Atlanta suburbs and white college graduates who rejected the GOP under former President Donald Trump stay with the Democrats or roll back?
“The story will be, on the outskirts of the suburbs – can Democrats reach the same level as in 2020 to make up for the loss in rural areas?” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who helps conduct the NBC News poll. “That’s the challenge. Because not all Biden votes in 2020 were for Biden — there was part of that vote that was against Trump.”
Warnock is appealing to those crossover voters, many of whom are telling pollsters they will vote for Republican government Brian Kemp but not be sold to Walker and open to support the Democrat. Warnock and his allies are running a series of ads featuring testimonials from a wide variety of voters who say they cannot support Walker, whose early endorsement of Trump propelled his candidacy.
Walker, meanwhile, is trying to consolidate Republicans as his internal polls give Warnock an edge among Democratic voters compared to Walker among Republican voters. At the rally here in Smyrna, Walker went after transgender athletes in women’s sports, mocked Biden’s son Hunter and despised the use of pronouns.
“We are a weak country because we talk about the use of pronouns in our military. pronoun? What the hell is a pronoun?” he taunted. “My pronoun is sick and tired of this pronoun stuff.”
Walker rally-goers seemed to struggle with its turbulent past, but some of them said they wanted to overlook it.
“He’s forgiven for his past,” said Stan Coates, a pastor from the nearby town of Marietta who came to see Walker.
“Everyone has baggage,” says Marietta’s Joni Lahue. “He has admitted that he had some problems.” She said she is more concerned about drugs and terrorists entering the US through the border with Mexico.
“A lot of people have turbulent pasts,” said Carolyn McDonald of Cobb County, referring to Warnock’s public feuds with his ex-wife. “For me they both had problems, you have to look past that.”
Both campaigns offer hopes of a full victory and avoidance of overtime, but if neither candidate makes it to 50% on election night, the race will move on to a second round on December 6.
“We will take things as they come. I think we could very well get a verdict on Tuesday. We’ll see,’ Warnock said. “But the fact that people are coming in in record numbers is amazing. I think it’s good for democracy.”
Walker spokesman Will Kiley said the “momentum” in the candidate’s favor has made them optimistic about winning on the first ballot. “On November 9, Herschel Walker will be the next elected senator for the great state of Georgia.”
Representative Nikema Williams, who represents a district in Atlanta and chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, told NBC News that it is “extremely important” that the state remains blue this year.
“We elected our first Jewish senator from the state of Georgia, our first black senator from the state of Georgia. People were trying to tell us it wasn’t possible,” Williams said in an interview. “We have the opportunity to show that 2020 was not just a fluke. 2020 was about years and years of organizing on the ground and voters here in Georgia bowing their power to show their power in the polls, and that’s what we want to replicate.