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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Warnock and Walker, at finish line in Georgia, stick to their strategies

Supporters listen as Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate, speaks during a campaign event ahead of the Georgia Runoff Election in Loganville, Ga., Dec. 4, 2022.

By Jazmine Ulloa, Maya King and Reid J. Epstein

The closely watched rematch between Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Herschel Walker has reached its final hours, capping an intense and turbulent campaign that has prompted debate over issues of race, class and power in a state with a pivotal role in American politics.

On Sunday morning at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Warnock is a senior pastor, he peppered his sermon with thinly veiled allusions to the election, reminding people multiple times to vote and joking that they had a choice between two candidates whose “last name starts with W.”

Walker on Sunday urged his supporters to vote, on part of what his campaign has been calling an “Evict Warnock Bus Tour.” “If you don’t have a friend, go make a friend and get them out to vote,” he told supporters.

More than 1.8 million Georgians have already cast ballots for today’s runoff, topping early-vote records in a contest that will determine whether Warnock gives Democrats a 51st vote in the Senate, an addition that would offer some procedural benefits. For Republicans, a win by Walker would reassert the state’s red streak despite a blue surge two years ago.

In 2020, energized Democratic voters propelled Warnock and Jon Ossoff into the Senate, after fierce showdowns with Republican incumbents, swinging the Senate’s balance of power. And for the first time in 28 years, Georgia voted for a Democrat for president.

Today’s outcome will also provide an early test of the impact of Donald Trump’s nascent 2024 presidential campaign on other Republican candidates. Trump has steered clear of Georgia before the runoff after his 2020 loss there and a disappointing midterm season for Republicans. Earlier this year, his chosen primary challengers to Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger were both firmly rejected.

As Warnock and Walker crisscrossed Georgia over the weekend to deliver their closing pitches, the candidates largely stuck to the distinct messages and styles that have guided their bids since the November election, when Warnock edged out Walker but fell short of the 50% threshold, sending the race into a runoff.

At energetic rallies filled with hundreds of chanting supporters, Warnock focused on promoting both Democrats’ policy victories and his willingness to work with Republicans. And he sought to mobilize the Black, Asian, Latino and white working-class voters who two years ago propelled him and Ossoff to victories.

On Sunday, Warnock began his morning behind the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist, presiding over a service. Hundreds packed the pews, including longtime parishioners, members of Congress and members of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. He finished the day with a pair of campaign rallies in Athens, home to the University of Georgia, including one at a student center named for Zell Miller, the last Georgia Democrat to win a Senate seat before 2021.

Although Senate Democrats have already clinched control of the chamber, a Warnock victory would provide them crucial insurance during a two-year period in which two moderate colleagues — Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — will be facing reelection.

At their first Sunday evening stop in Athens, Warnock and Ossoff stressed the narrowly divided nature of the Senate and their votes for key Democratic priorities.

Walker, at his more subdued events, mostly stuck to retail politics and one-on-one conversations with voters, as he and his allies have sought to tie the senator to President Joe Biden’s agenda, focusing more on cultural issues than policy points. On Saturday, Walker made a stop in Atlanta where he shook hands and took selfies with football fans at a sparsely attended tailgating party.

On Sunday, he stumped with Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and John Kennedy, R-La., in Loganville, a suburb an hour east of Atlanta. His speech did not stray from its usual themes, as he recounted his biography and added a handful of rambling anecdotes about heaven and hell and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His closing message, however, was a reminder to vote. “Come rain, sun or shine,” he said, “we’ve got to get out there and let them know we’re sick and tired of this.”

The closing scenes encapsulated the candidates’ divergent strategies through much of the 2022 midterm cycle: While Warnock kept a packed schedule of public events and press interviews, Walker preferred a less visible approach. But Walker was expected to pick up the speed of his events Monday, with several bus tour stops in the rural, northern reaches of the state. Warnock on Monday is planning to speak in the morning to union workers and Georgia Tech students in the afternoon, and hold a closing rally in Atlanta.

Georgia has been under the nation’s political focus since Biden won the state in 2020, with a narrow victory that nonetheless marked the shifting politics of the South. The population in Atlanta and across the state has surged, particularly among young people and people of color. Some of Atlanta’s metropolitan-area precincts, which were once Republican strongholds in the northern suburbs, in recent years have swung from red to blue to purple. On Friday, the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee took a step toward making Georgia an early primary state, further cementing its status as a political player.

The demographic and political transformation in Georgia, as in other states across the country, has been at the root of far-right conspiracy theories and false allegations of fraud over the 2020 election, and many voters — and Black voters in particular — have seen this election as having have high stakes for the future of voting rights and elections. Lines at some polling sites in Atlanta late last week were so long that people had to make multiple attempts to vote.

On Sunday, hundreds gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church for its Sunday service and the last Sunday that Warnock would preside over before Tuesday. As a message reminding the crowd of Tuesday’s election flashed across the screen behind the pulpit, the crowd erupted in applause.

“Don’t ask me about Tuesday,” he said at one point during the sermon. “I don’t know what God’s going to do tomorrow.”

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