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Warnock, Walker push to avoid runoff in Senate showdown

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Sofi Gratas / GPB
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Next week's election offers a now-familiar story for Georgia voters in this new battleground state: an expensive Senate contest with expected close margins and outsized national importance that could decide which party controls the upper chamber.

But unlike the 2020 races that were resolved in January 2021 runoffs, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent Herschel Walker are both trying to end the election cycle on Tuesday and avoid a Dec. 6 runoff by convincing a majority of voters to support them the first time in Georgia's marquee Senate race.

Polls show a tight race between Warnock and Walker, with recent nonpartisan polls giving Warnock a slight edge over the Trump-backed former football star, and with Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver drawing enough votes to potentially keep either of the main candidates from clearing the 50% plus one vote needed to win outright.

In 2021, Warnock bested appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler to fill the final two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, and is seeking a full six-year term with a campaign platform that emphasizes legislative achievements around lowering health care costs and pitching himself as a bipartisan champion that can successfully advocate for Georgians in a closely-divided Congress.

"I partnered with a Republican senator from Alabama to eliminate the regulations and stand up for farmers," Warnock said in a recent campaign ad waist deep in a pile of peanuts. "I'm Raphael Warnock and I approve this message because I'll do anything if it means helping Georgia."

The Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor has also tried to tack to the middle on issues like the economy, as national Democrats and President Joe Biden face negative favorability ratings from voters hit with higher gas prices and inflation.

“There is no question that people are feeling pain at the grocery store, at the pharmacy counters,” Warnock said during a televised debate with Walker in October. “And while we are paying record prices, a lot of our corporate actors are seeing record profits in the oil and gas industry and the pharmaceutical industry, which is why I have stood up for ordinary, hardworking Georgia families time and time again.”

In the final days of the campaign, Warnock has pivoted to more explicitly attacking Walker as being ill-equipped to serve in the Senate due to numerous controversies, including false statements about his personal and professional achievements.

"This is a man who lies about the most basic facts of his life," Warnock said at a rally with former President Barack Obama in College Park late October. "And we all saw it with our own eyes — he wears his lies, quite literally, as a badge of honor. If we can't trust him to tell the truth about his life, how can we trust him to protect our lives and our families and our children and our jobs and our future?"

More recently, Walker's campaign has returned to holding events without answering questions from reporters, opting instead to appear on friendly media outlets and ignore questions about new allegations that he pressured a second woman to have an abortion despite his public stance opposing the procedure with no exceptions.

Walker seeks a win despite controversies, lagging support from GOP voters

In a typical midterm year, the party in power tends to lose seats as voters express their displeasure with the previous two years of policies, and 2022 should be no exception. But Walker is one of several GOP Senate nominees backed by Trump who have struggled against their Democratic challengers due to personal baggage and weaker campaigns.

Walker is one of the top fundraisers in the country and along with outside groups has blanketed the airwaves with ads tying Warnock to Biden's unpopularity and blaming Democrats for everything from inflation to crime rates. He supports a federal abortion ban with no exceptions, but later tried to soften that stance to endorse Georgia's current abortion law that outlaws most abortions after about six weeks into pregnancy, before many know they are pregnant.

His main policy platform is not being a Democrat, pitching voters that his outsider status is needed to change the trajectory of federal policy after Democrats took control of the White House, House and Senate. In stump speeches, Walker combines typical conservative messaging about the economy with rhetoric around "wokeness" and other social issues, catering to an older, whiter evangelical base that makes up a meaningful portion of the Republican Party.

Many nonpartisan polls of the Senate race show Walker garnering less support with Black voters than the 8% to 10% Republicans typically earn in elections.

His gaffes around policy, frequent reporting about overstatements and lies with his backstory and troubling past with violence has turned off members of his own party, too. Recent polls also suggest as many as one in 10 Republican voters might not support Walker, either leaving the race blank, recording a protest vote for the Libertarian or crossing over and supporting Warnock.

Even so, Walker could represent the decisive seat to give Republicans control of the U.S. Senate, and multiple GOP Senators have made a pilgrimage to the Peach State to reiterate their support for Walker and stress the stakes of this election.

“I know that Herschel Walker is going to help build a Republican majority in the United States Senate,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said at a parking lot rally in Atlanta’s exurbs mid-October. “Herschel will be a leader in the Senate just like he has been a leader in sports and business.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. Rick Scott rallied for Walker and even accompanied him to the lone debate Walker and Warnock had before the general election, while other potential future colleagues like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Roger Marshall and others have appeared on the stump to convince Republican voters to turn out.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.