Warnock, Walker pivot to overtime in Georgia Senate contest

ATLANTA (AP) — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker pivoted to a decisive extra round of their Senate race Thursday, while party leaders and donors around the country geared up for a four-week campaign blitz that could determine control of the chamber for the next two years.

With votes still being counted in Senate contests in Arizona and Nevada, the single Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia could either decide majority control — as did the state's twin runoffs in 2021 — or further pad one party's advantage. But neither Republicans nor Democrats were waiting for the Western states' results to begin scrambling for big money.

The Democrats' Senate campaign arm announced early plans for a $7 million investment in field operations, a sum certain to be dwarfed by what both parties' various committees will eventually spend on the airwaves. Top Republicans in Washington began huddling with donors, urging their continued support after the party nationwide fell short of expectations in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Walker, sent out fundraising pitches based on the runoff. The White House offered assurances that President Joe Biden would do whatever was best to to help Warnock — even if that means keeping his distance.

Warnock sidestepped the national implications Thursday, going directly at Walker and characterizing the former football star as unqualified and unfit for the office.

“This race is about competence, and it’s about character,” Warnock said in his first public appearance since his election night party. He went on to detail Walker’s exaggerations of his business and professional achievements and allegations of violence against women, including Walker’s first wife. And he called Walker, who is making his first bid for public office, “manifestly uninformed” on public policy.

“The choice between me and Herschel Walker is clear,” Warnock said. “Some things in life are complicated. This ain’t one of them. This is not a math test.”

Walker was scheduled to host his first runoff campaign rally later Thursday in the northern reaches of metro Atlanta, key territory for Republicans in Georgia.

Warnock’s searing indictment of Walker stands in contrast to the more muted arguments the senator offered for much of the fall, when he focused on his own record in Washington, especially deals with Republicans on infrastructure and provisions in Democratic bills to cap insulin and other drug costs for Medicare recipients.

Both approaches, his advisers say, are aimed at independents and moderate Republicans who are critical in a state that, until recently, was dominated by the GOP at all levels of government.

Tuesday's election results appeared to validate Warnock’s strategy and show Walker’s vulnerability after sustained scrutiny of his past, including allegations from two former girlfriends that he encouraged and paid for their abortions despite calling for a national ban on the procedure as a political candidate.

Walker led Warnock by about 35,000 votes out of more than 3.9 million cast but failed to clear the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

More critically for Walker, he ran well behind nearly every other GOP nominee for statewide office, including Gov. Brian Kemp, who got about 200,000 more votes on his way to winning a second term. Walker’s vote shares trailed Trump’s 2020 marks across the state, in rural areas, suburban counties and metro centers -- and Trump still lost the state to Biden by a razor-thin margin.

Republicans have acknowledged Walker’s flaws throughout the campaign but have argued Warnock remains vulnerable because of broad voter dissatisfaction with generally high inflation and the direction of the country under Democratic control of the White House and Capitol Hill.

Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor, called Walker “damaged goods,” saying the contest has to be about who’s running Washington, not just a Georgia senator. “You are voting for Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell” to lead the Senate, Eberhart said.

Walker, who dismisses the focus on his past as “foolishness,” has fully embraced a nationalized attack on his opponent.

“Raphael Warnock represents Joe Biden, not the people of Georgia,” he says at every campaign stop.

Stephen Lawson, who is leading the 34N22 political action committee in support of Walker’s bid, said the same. “That’s still the message: Elect a check on Joe Biden,” said Lawson, whose PAC features Walker's jersey number as a running back for the University of Georgia and later pro football.

Lawson said his PAC will focus on three pools of voters: the GOP base that stuck with Walker, the 200,000 Kemp voters who didn’t and the 350,000 voters who backed Trump two years ago but didn’t return to the polls for the January 2021 runoffs that Democrats won. The anti-Biden message, he said, can reach all three groups.

Warnock, for his part, tacitly acknowledges that his party affiliation may be his biggest liability, even as Democrats exceeded expectations Tuesday by winning enough to potentially hold their Senate majority and limit Republicans to a slim House majority, at best.

From the start of his campaign, Warnock has distanced himself from Biden, at least in his campaign speeches and television advertising. The senator alludes to his 2021 runoff victory alongside fellow Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff and links it to Democratic accomplishments, from the COVID-19 pandemic relief package to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman on the nation’s highest judicial body.

Biden's approval ratings nationally hover in the low 40s and are even lower in Georgia. White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said it was up to Warnock to decide what is best for his campaign.

“The president will do whatever is helpful to Sen. Warnock, whether that’s campaigning with him, whether that’s raising money,” she said Thursday on CNN. “Whatever Sen. Warnock would like, the president will do.”

But regardless of either candidate's difficulty navigating his liabilities, one thing is certain: A full-scale national fight is underway.

“There’s going to be plenty of money,” said Eberhart. “It’s the only game in town, so everyone will still be there.”

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Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms.

Bill Barrow, The Associated Press