The fight for control of the US Senate could come down to Georgia – again.
For the second time in less than two years, the Peach State, which elected two Democratic senators in the last election cycle, is home to a contest that has gripped both national parties and potentially holds the key to the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
This time around, though, at least one key characteristic of the race has been reversed: Democrat Raphael Warnock has gone from challenger to incumbent, trying to fend off Republican nominee Herschel Walker. The former football great, recruited and endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has run an uneven campaign and spent the past month beset by controversy, but is still running neck-and-neck with Warnock with early voting in high gear and Election Day nearing.
A Warnock victory would likely foreclose Republicans’ path to a majority in the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a decisive vote. That reality, coupled with headwinds – in the form of economic angst and Biden’s low approval ratings – familiar to Democrats across the country, has helped coalesce Republicans behind Walker.
Underscoring his party’s mix of ambivalence and political practicality, former Vice President Mike Pence, after not mentioning Walker during his remarks at a rally in Cumming, Georgia, on Tuesday for GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, told reporters he is “supporting the whole (Republican) ticket here in Georgia.”
The most recent polling of the race, from the New York Times and Siena College, showed no clear leader, with 49% of likely voters supporting Warnock to the 46% backing Walker – a difference well within the survey’s margin of error. Another poll, from Fox News at the end of October, also found a remarkably close contest, with Warnock at 44% and Walker at 43%. If neither candidate notches a majority of the vote, the race would be decided in a December 6 runoff.
Walker, whose candidacy has endured a stream of gaffes on policy, has more recently been contended with allegations from two women who say he had pressured them to have abortions. Walker has denied the allegations and CNN has not independently confirmed them. But the women’s claims run counter to the candidate’s past statements in favor of a full federal abortion ban without exceptions. (He has, more recently, walked back those remarks and said he supports Georgia’s law, which bans abortions after about six weeks but makes exceptions for cases of rape or incest, pending a timely police report, and in some cases where the pregnant person’s health is at risk.)
Warnock, meanwhile, initially sought to steer clear of directly addressing the controversy. But late last month, he launched a television ad titled “Hypocrite.”
“For you, Herschel Walker wants to ban abortion,” says a narrator, before playing comments the Republican made supporting no exceptions to a national abortion ban. “But for himself,” the narrator then asks before playing news reports about the allegations.
Warnock’s play to undecided voters and moderates has focused on his efforts to expand access to health care – he often cites his work to lower the cost of insulin – along with his bipartisan record in the Senate.
“I’ll work with anyone if it means helping Georgia,” he says in another ad, hammering home a message the senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church has repeated at rallies and in his lone debate with the Republican.
But with inflation concerns rising and Biden’s unpopularity, he’s kept the president at arm’s length. Instead, former President Barack Obama has been Democrats’ choice to amp up Georgia voters – and deliver a harsh case against Walker.
“There is very little evidence that he has taken any interest, bothered to learn anything about or displayed any kind of inclination towards public service or volunteer work or helping people in anyway,” Obama said of Walker at a rally for Warnock last week in College Park.
Walker’s campaign has trafficked heavily in culture war rhetoric, along with criticism of inflation and crime rates under Biden, whom he’s sought to tie to Warnock to as tightly as possible.
“For those of you who are concerned about voting for me, a non-politician,” Walker said during their debate, “I want you to think about the damage politicians like Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock have done to this country.”