What’s happening in Georgia?

AP-warnock-walker.jpg
Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. AP

What’s happening in Georgia?

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN GEORGIA? For Republicans, the numbers look ominous. Record-setting totals of Georgians have voted early this week in the Dec. 6 runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker. The turnout appears to include slightly more likely Warnock voters than at the same time in the general election. And overall, the more early voting there is, in the experience of recent election watchers, the better Democrats perform.

Here are the figures so far: In the recent general election, the largest number of early voters on any single day was 157,908 on Nov. 3. In the runoff, 303,650 Georgians voted on Monday, 303,145 voted on Tuesday, 280,808 voted on Wednesday, and 293,795 voted on Thursday. The total turnout at this point is still less than it was for the general election, because the general election early voting period was much longer, with more days of voting. But the runoff numbers show a real intensity among voters. And in the midterm elections, intensity belonged to Democrats, allowing them to keep control of the Senate in the face of Republican hopes for a GOP takeover. In Georgia, Warnock edged Walker by 37,675 votes in the general election but fell half a percentage point short of 50%, which triggered the runoff.

Republican strategists close to the Georgia race say they are not overly concerned by the voting patterns so far. Warnock is going to win the early voting period, they concede, just like he did in the general election. “But this time, the margin will be less,” says one strategist. “Republicans have been narrowing the lead.” Then, next Tuesday, GOP officials hope, Walker will win the Election Day vote, as he did in the general election, but this time by a large enough margin to prevail overall.

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The polls give Warnock a small lead. And in general, a lot of Republicans involved in 2022 Senate races are somewhat chastened as they look at election trends these days. They are not going out on a limb to predict that Walker will win, as they did before the general election. “It remains to be seen,” said the strategist. Another strategist added, “I do not have a feel for which way this is going to go. I thought Oz would eke out Fetterman, and that was clearly wrong,” a reference to the Pennsylvania Senate race in which Republican Mehmet Oz lost to Democrat John Fetterman.

Also, there’s no doubt something about the race has changed in the last few days. For one thing, what was Herschel Walker’s main reason for running — to prevent Democratic control of the Senate — has disappeared. Democrats have already retained control of the Senate, and the Georgia runoff won’t change that. Republican voters who might have been energized by the chance to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats now know that won’t happen. In the big picture, one strategist recently conceded, “It’s a race about nothing.”

Of course, Warnock’s rationale — to keep the Senate in Democratic hands — has also gone away. In the absence of any great, overarching theme, the personal attacks between the two candidates have intensified. Warnock has a lot more money with which to attack Walker than Walker has to attack Warnock. According to OpenSecrets, Warnock has “raised more money than any other federal candidate this election cycle.” Warnock reported raising $150.5 million through Nov. 16, to Walker’s $58.3 million. In addition, OpenSecrets reports that Warnock had “three times as much cash on hand — $29.7 million — heading into the final weeks of the runoff election.”

Despite it all, Warnock is not a strong candidate. He is an undistinguished senator with a messy divorce and, as a pastor, serious questions about how his church funnels money to him and also treats its tenants. But of course, Walker has perhaps the messiest personal life of any recent candidate — for a while, previously unknown out-of-wedlock children seemed to be coming out of the woodwork — which has tended to lessen the effects of Republican attacks on Warnock.

Now, though, in the final days, perhaps the most fundamental issue about Walker has taken center stage, and that is whether he meets the minimum standards of competence and stability for high office.

First, a note. Without naming names, it should be said that the competence standard is not uniformly high in the U.S. Senate. Warnock is certainly not an impressive lawmaker. But still, Walker has been open about his mental problems. He has been accused of once holding a gun to his ex-wife’s head, and he wrote in his autobiography of planning to use a gun to kill a man who had offended him, and also holding a gun to his own head with thoughts of suicide. He wrote that he suffered from “dissociative identity disorder,” or multiple personalities, which he now says has been cured. He gives all the credit for his improvement to God, and begins each speech by saying, “I always give glory to my lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Then there is the way Walker talks. “His English is terrible,” noted one Republican who follows him. “He has terrible diction.” Indeed he does. It is not hard to imagine that it grates on many ears. Once again, the standards of the U.S. Senate are not exactly those of the Algonquin Round Table. But there is little doubt that for many, Walker can be a chore to listen to.

And then there is what he says. Walker peppers his speeches with weird stories and analogies. There is one about a bull who is in a pasture and wants to check out some cows in another pasture. There is one about an elevator that goes to heaven and hell. There was an extended soliloquy on vampires and werewolves. Listening to Walker’s speeches can be a downright weird experience.

Now, Democrats are in full attack mode on Walker’s competence and strangeness. Former President Barack Obama dwelled on it at length in a campaign visit to Georgia Thursday night. And Warnock has produced an ad that is made up of ordinary people listening to and reacting to some of Walker’s odder moments. “Is he for real?” asks one incredulously. “It is embarrassing, let’s call it what it is,” says another.

Here is the other side. Yes, Walker sounds awful. But he still communicates with an audience. Listen to his speeches, and you will hear a few simple, solid Republican positions. He wants to restore American energy independence. He wants to reduce federal spending. He is against wokeness. He is for religious liberty. He supports police. He wants greater funding for the military. He wants a less intrusive federal government. That is all mainstream Republicanism, if badly spoken. “I make common sense,” Walker says.

Indeed, he does. In the early 2000s, some Republicans defended the highly inarticulate President George W. Bush by saying something to the effect that, “He can’t put a sentence together, but at least he knows right from wrong.” That’s important. And perhaps that is why many Georgia Republicans who are fully aware of Walker’s limitations will vote for him anyway. They think he knows right from wrong, and they feel strongly that Democrats don’t. Put it that way, and the choice for Republicans is easy.

One last note. Walker is obviously the pick of former President Donald Trump. He won big in the state Republican primary last May. Now, with some other Trump-endorsed candidates having lost — Oz and Arizona’s Blake Masters among them — some Republicans are fearful about Trump coming to Georgia to campaign for Walker. They’re worried it would hurt more than it would help. At the moment, it appears Trump will not, in fact, visit the state. One thing the recent midterm elections showed was that nothing energizes Democratic voters like the chance to vote against Donald Trump. It fills them with fighting spirit and a resolve to go to the polls. It is not clear how big the Trump factor will be in the runoff, but at this point, it might be working against Walker more than for him. It’s an uphill battle.

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