By BILL Barrow and JEFF AMY
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia voters will decide the nation’s final Senate contest Tuesday, choosing between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican football legend Herschel Walker, after a four-week runoff that drew a flurry of outside spending into a battle in more and more personal. .
This year’s runoff has lower stakes than the two in 2021, when victories by Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the Senate. But it’s still important: The outcome will determine whether Democrats have an overall 51-49 majority in the Senate or control a 50-50 chamber based on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
Cold and rainy conditions greeted voters in the Atlanta area. At an elementary school in suburban Johns Creek, lines formed before polls opened but moved quickly later, voters undeterred by the weather.
Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Progressive Project Action Fund, said the group has seen few problems in the state. Lines were moving forward and equipment problems were being resolved promptly, she said.
The tournament concludes a bitter battle between Warnock, the state’s first black senator and the lead minister of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and Walker, a former University of Georgia football star and political novice who campaigned with the support of former President Donald Trump.
A Warnock victory would solidify Georgia’s status as a battleground ahead of the 2024 presidential election. A Walker victory, however, could be an indication of Democratic weakness, especially given that Georgia Republicans have swept all other level contests state last month.
In the November election, Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes out of nearly 4 million, but fell short of the majority, triggering a runoff. About 1.9 million runoff votes have already been cast by mail and during early voting, a boon for Democrats whose voters vote that way more often. Republicans typically do better on Election Day voting.
Last month, Walker, 60, trailed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by more than 200,000 votes after a campaign dominated by his meandering campaign speeches and damaging allegations, including claims he paid for the abortions of two former girlfriends – allegations Walker has denied.
Atlanta voter Tom Callaway praised the GOP’s strength in Georgia and said he supported Kemp in the opening round of voting. But he cast his vote for Warnock on Tuesday because he doesn’t think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator.”
“I didn’t think he had a statement about what he really believed in or had a meaningful campaign,” Callaway said.
Warnock, whose 2021 victory was in a special election to serve out the remainder of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, says he is convinced enough voters, including independents and moderate Republicans, have backed Kemp that he deserves a full term.
“I think they’ll get it right,” the 53-year-old senator said Monday. “They know this race is about competence and character.”
Walker campaigned on Monday with his wife, Julie, greeting supporters and saying thanks, rather than his usual campaign speech and attacks on Warnock.
“I love you all and we’re going to win this election,” he said at a winery in Ellijay, comparing the election to his athletic success. “I love winning championships.
Warnock’s campaign spent about $170 million on the campaign trail, far exceeding Walker’s nearly $60 million, according to their latest federal disclosures. The Democratic and Republican Party committees, along with other political action committees, spent even more.
The senator paired his bipartisanship with a focus on personal values, bolstered by his status as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. However, starting in the closing period before the November 8 general election, Warnock added to Walker’s destruction, using the football star’s rocky past to argue that the political newcomer was “not ready” and “not fit” for high office .
Walker, who used his athletic fame to clinch the GOP nomination, sought to portray Warnock as a yes vote for President Joe Biden. At times, he made the attack in mostly personal terms, accusing Warnock of “sitting on his knees begging” at the White House — a fierce charge for a black opponent to challenge a black senator about his relationship with a white president.
A multimillionaire businessman, Walker inflated his philanthropic activities and business achievements, including claiming that his company employed hundreds of people and took in tens of millions of dollars in annual sales, even though later records show he had eight employees and averaged about $1.5 million a year. . He implied he worked as a law enforcement officer and said he graduated from college, although he did none.
Walker was also forced to admit during the campaign that he had three children out of wedlock that he had not previously spoken about publicly – in conflict with his years-long criticism of absentee fathers and his appeals as black men , in particular, to play an active role. role in their children’s lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He never denied these details and wrote about his violent tendencies in a 2008 memoir that attributed the behavior to mental illness.
Warnock countered with his individual Senate accomplishments, promoting a provision he sponsored to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients and reminding voters that Republicans blocked his larger idea of capping those costs for all patients insulin dependent. He hailed deals on infrastructure and maternal health care with Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, mentioning those GOP colleagues more than Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or other Washington Democrats.
After the general election, Biden, who struggled with low approval ratings, vowed to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Warnock instead campaigned with former President Barack Obama in the days leading up to the tour.
Walker was endorsed by Trump but avoided campaigning with him until the final day of the campaign: The two held a conference call with supporters on Monday, according to a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Walker’s candidacy is the GOP’s last chance to flip a Senate seat this year. Dr. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, Blake Masters of Arizona, Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, all Trump loyalists, lost competitive Senate races that Republicans saw as part of their path to the majority.
Walker parted ways with Trump in a notable way. Trump spent two years falsely claiming his loss in Georgia and nationally was fraudulent, despite numerous federal and local officials, a long list of courts, former campaign staffers and even his attorney general saying it was there is no evidence that the fraud he alleges.
In his only debate against Warnock in October, Walker was asked if he would accept the results even if he lost. He answered with one word, “Yes.”
Associated Press writer Ron Harris contributed to this report.