WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) — Ads featuring candidates’ ex-wives. Cries of “liars” flying in both directions. Stories of a lousy apartment building and forced abortions. Questioning an opponent’s independence. His intellect. His mental stability. His religious beliefs.
The extended Georgia Senate campaign between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, football legend Herschel Walker, has grown increasingly bitter as their Dec. 6 runoff approaches. With Democrats already securing a majority in the Senate, it’s a striking contrast from two years ago, when the state’s bipartisan runoffs were mostly about which party would control the chamber in Washington.
“Herschel Walker is not serious,” Warnock told supporters recently in central Georgia, saying Walker “majors in lying” and fumbles with the basics of public policy. “But the election is very serious. Don’t confuse the two.”
Walker casts Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, as a “hypocrite” and servile to President Joe Biden. Emphasizing the insult, Walker calls the incumbent “Scooby-Doo,” complete with an impression of the cartoon dog’s gibberish.
The broadsheets reflect the candidates’ furious push in the four weeks between the November 8 general election and the run-off to persuade their core supporters to cast another ballot. For Walker, it also means he’s drawing more independents and moderates to his campaign after he underperformed another Republican on the ticket, Gov. Brian Kemp, by 200,000 votes.
Warnock led Walker by 37,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast in the first round, but the senator fell short of the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
In many ways, the shift from his first runoff campaign is exactly what Warnock wanted: a straightforward choice between two contenders. Two years ago, then-President Donald Trump, fresh off his defeat, and then-President Biden made several trips to Georgia to highlight the national stakes in the races between Warnock and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Sen. David Perdue as control of the Senate hung by a thin thread.
Trump ended up alienating his own supporters and many moderates with his false claims of a rigged presidential election in 2020. Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories left the Senate in a 50-50 split, with Democrats taking control on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie. Warnock also became Georgia’s first black senator.
This year, with Warnock running for a full six-year term after winning the 2021 special election, Democrats have already guaranteed control of the Senate by flipping a seat in Pennsylvania. A Warnock victory would give the Democrats an outright 51-49 majority, meaning the parties would not need to negotiate a power-sharing deal.
Warnock’s preferred emphasis for most of his re-election has been his deal-making in Washington and the personal values he brings to the job. It took until the final stages of the campaign — only after two women accused Walker, an opponent of abortion rights, of encouraging and paying for their abortions — for the senator to level his attacks, claiming Walker is “unprepared” and “unfit” for the job .
“My opponent lies about everything,” Warnock said at a recent campaign stop, ticking off a litany of Walker’s repeated lies and exaggerations. “He said he was a police officer. He is not. He said he worked for the FBI. He didn’t. Said he graduated from the University of Georgia. He didn’t. Said he was errand boy in his class. He was not. … He said he had another company with 800 employees. It has eight.”
Walker has alternately enjoyed the contest since winning the GOP nomination in the spring.
“Herschel is a competitor. He’s very comfortable mano a mano,” said Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, noting the candidate’s athletic prowess as a football runner, kickboxer and Olympic bobsledder.
In fact, Walker takes his attacks right to Warnock’s strengths as pastor of the famous church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Walker has criticized Warnock over an Atlanta apartment building owned by a foundation of Warnock’s church, where residents have complained to The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet, about eviction notices and poor conditions.
“What he’s doing in this apartment building in Columbia Towers is not right,” Walker said recently at a suburban Atlanta campaign stop. “You must not put Jesus’ name on what you do to people, and do not put Martin Luther King’s name on it. … You are not Jesus and you are not Dr. King.”
Warnock, who says no residents of Columbia Tower have been evicted, incorporates Walker’s attack into the list of the challenger’s documented exaggerations and lies. “What kind of person is that lying in the church?” Warnock said in Macon. “It’s not the first time people attacked Ebenezer Baptist Church. They attacked Martin Luther King Jr. I’m in good company.”
Yet asked if he has reconsidered his church’s stewardship of Columbia Towers, Warnock evaded: “I’ve already answered the question. I’m proud of what my church does to feed and house the hungry and the homeless every single week.”
Walker also accuses Warnock of “getting rich” as a senator, a nod to the pastor’s $7,500-a-month housing allowance from the church. The payments are not a violation of Senate ethics rules that limit senators’ outside income.
On at least one occasion during the runoff, Walker has suggested that Warnock is a negligent father. Warnock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the comment “crossed a line.” Earlier in the campaign, Walker publicly acknowledged three of his children for the first time, only doing so after The Daily Beast reported their existence. Warnock has not mentioned these children in any of his criticisms of Walker.
Walker, meanwhile, has not answered reporters’ questions at an open campaign event since late October, when another accuser came forward to say he had pressured her to have an abortion — a contradiction of his advocacy as a candidate for a national ban on all abortions. Walker has denied the women’s claims.
Both candidates’ ex-wives also count in the campaign, although the two men themselves avoid the topic, leaving the discussion of their marriages mostly to paid advertising. In an ad, Warnock’s ex-wife tells Atlanta police that he ran over her foot. The Republican ad fails to note that a police report says officers found no physical evidence to support her claim. A Democratic ad includes an interview with Walker’s first wife describing him threatening violence against her, circumstances Walker confirmed in an autobiography.
Since the two men met for their lone debate on October 14, Warnock has hammered Walker for a lack of policy detail, sometimes confusing what policy he is discussing.
Warnock is promoting his new federal law capping insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries, noting that Walker said diabetics could manage their health by “eating right,” a practice that is not enough for insulin-dependent diabetes patients.
“Perhaps he should apply to become a dietitian. I’m running for the U.S. Senate,” Warnock said in Macon.
He lashed out when Walker declared that the U.S. is “not ready” for climate action and should “keep having the gas-guzzling cars,” which he said already have “good emissions” standards. Warnock added a gleeful taunt when Walker recently introduced a tangent about vampires into a campaign speech.
“I mean, who says things like that?” Warnock asked the supporters.
Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, insisted the Republicans’ best argument remains Warnock’s alignment with Democrats on economic policy. Still, he acknowledges that the tone of the campaign has darkened.
“We will certainly continue to aggressively pursue the case against Warnock,” he said, “and I suspect they will do the same.”
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