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Georgia voters once again have the last word during election season

By Jeff Zeleny, Eva McKend and Gregory Krieg, CNN

On the final day of overtime in Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock exuded confidence, but warned supporters against being complacent in his runoff election with Republican nominee and former football great Herschel Walker.

“There is still a path for Herschel Walker to win this race,” Warnock said after a campaign stop here Monday. “If there’s anything I worry about it’s that people will think we don’t need their voice. We do. We need you to show up.”

Warnock was the leading vote-getter in the general election last month, but the contest extended into December since he failed to win a majority. After four weeks of runoff campaigning, Warnock and Democrats are optimistic that he can outlast Walker and secure a full, six-year term. Such a victory would help solidify Georgia as a purple state after Joe Biden narrowly carried it in 2020 and Warnock and Jon Ossoff won January 2021 runoffs that delivered the president a Democratic Senate.

Tuesday’s race, though, is still expected to be tight, with both parties and allied groups pouring tens of millions into a contest that will shape the balance of power in the Senate over the next two years.

Democrats have already clinched control of the chamber, but victory for Warnock — after the party picked up a seat in Pennsylvania — would give Majority Leader Chuck Schumer a vote to spare and allow Democrats to lead committees that have been split since Biden took office. With that in mind, Walker and a host of GOP senators have implored Republicans to send him to Washington as a check on Biden and his policies.

“We’re working on turnout, turnout, turnout,” Walker said as he barnstormed across northern Georgia at five scheduled rallies on the eve of the election. “A vote for Warnock is a vote for these failed policies. A vote for me is a better coming.”

During a campaign rally for Warnock in Atlanta last week, former President Barack Obama stressed the immediate impact of Democrats potentially winning a 51st Senate seat. “It prevents one person from holding up everything,” he said, while also looking ahead to the next election and its implications.

“It also puts us in a better position a couple years from now when you’ve got another election and the Senate map is going to be tilted in the favor of Republicans,” Obama said. “And it’ll help prevent Republicans from getting a filibuster-proof majority that could allow them to do things like passing a federal abortion ban.”

The turnout question

In the final act of the 2022 midterm election, Georgia voters once again have the last word.

For the past few weeks, Georgia Republican leaders have been touting early in-person voting turnout. That’s despite GOP officials having sought unsuccessfully to close the polls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving owing to a controversial reading of state voting laws. The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately upheld a lower court’s ruling that allowed them to open.

On Friday, the state broke its single-day record, again, when more than 350,000 people went to the polls to cast ballots before Election Day.

But those figures, though impressive, came during an early voting period that had been significantly condensed from 2021. Though several days last week ended with historically high numbers of ballots cast, the overall number of voters ahead of this runoff — as compared to the 2021 election — actually decreased, from roughly 3.1 million last year to about 1.87 million in 2022. (About 2.5 million voted before Election Day last month.)

Despite the uncertainty some Democrats feel around turnout, especially given an ugly weather forecast for Tuesday, Walker faces steep challenges in money and math.

Democrats have more than doubled GOP ad spending over the last month alone, according to a CNN analysis of data from AdImpact. Democrats have spent an astonishing $55 million to the GOP’s $26 million on TV spots since November 9.

Walker is also scrambling to overcome an extraordinary 200,000-vote gap between his November vote total and that of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who handily defeated Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. That’s a deficit complicating Walker’s path as he looks to win over Republican or Republican-leaning voters who didn’t turn out for him last month.

Yet his GOP supporters are keeping hope alive.

“I think there’s a lot of people who are sorry they didn’t get out and vote last time,” said Elizabeth Walters, a retiree who came to see Walker at a weekend stop in Loganville. “I think it might be close, but I think he’ll win.”

The optimism is far more muted in many Republican circles in Washington, where a mix of dissatisfaction and disappointment are directed at the Walker campaign and former President Donald Trump, who recruited him to run.

Trump steered clear of Georgia, but held a tele-rally on Monday night to rally his supporters.

“If Herschel wins this race Republicans can make Chuck Schumer’s life a little more difficult and we can slam on the brakes on every extreme left-wing judge and everything else that’s happening right now for the last two years, been happening to our country,” Trump said in remarks that lasted less than 10 minutes.

“We’re in dire straits in this nation,” said John Hayes, a Republican voter who watched Walker campaign at a weekend stop. “I think there will be a lot of Republicans who come out to vote on Tuesday. That’s what we need.”

Kemp has done his best to aid the cause after stiff-arming Walker for most of the general election campaign. With Trump effectively out of the picture, Kemp has emerged as Walker’s top surrogate, appearing in a pair of television ads during the runoff for his fellow Republican.

Victory for Walker would be a boon for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the coming Congress. And Trump, ignoring all evidence that his involvement complicated the GOP’s path here, would surely claim vindication.

But the most profound effect of a Walker win could be bolstering Kemp’s national stature. After defeating a Trump-backed primary challenger last spring and being reelected by a wide margin last month, he is the rare high-profile Republican to publicly reject Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election and maintain, if not grow, his popularity with the GOP base.

Kids and cross-over voters

Further underscoring the growing strength of Kemp’s brand has been Warnock’s effort to reinforce and grow his support among so-called crossover voters. In the run-up to the runoff, Warnock debuted an ad spotlighting voters who said they had backed Kemp and plan to do the same for Warnock on Tuesday.

But in the final sprint, the Democrat has also been seeking to energize the young voters who, over the past two cycles, have emerged as increasingly crucial parts of the party’s coalition.

At Georgia Tech on Monday, Warnock urged students who had not already cast ballots to get out on Tuesday — and asked that they encourage their friends and family to do the same.

“I want you to know that your assignment, if you’ve already voted, your assignment is not yet done. Your assignment is to get some more of your friends,” Warnock said. “Call Lottie, Dottie, and everybody. Tell them it’s time to vote.”

Warnock was introduced by Florida Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost, who will become the first Gen-Z member of Congress.

“We know that young people don’t make up the biggest voting bloc right now,” Frost said, “but we are the bloc that matters.”

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Ethan Cohen contributed to this report.

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