Georgia Senate Rivals, With Little Time to Spare, Sprint Toward Runoff

ATLANTA — As Republicans steamed this week over an underwhelming midterm performance, Herschel Walker wanted to talk about another subject altogether: vampires and werewolves.

“A werewolf can kill a vampire, did you know that?” Mr. Walker, the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia, asked supporters in an Atlanta suburb, telling a story about a film he had recently watched to make a point about having faith. “I never knew that. So I didn’t want to be a vampire anymore. I wanted to be a werewolf.”

With nearly every other midterm election decided, Mr. Walker and his Democratic rival, Senator Raphael Warnock, are still in full campaign mode, pressing ahead with the approaches that left them narrowly divided on Nov. 8 and facing a runoff election on Dec. 6. That short timeline, which Georgia Republicans tightened last year after losing the towering runoff contests of early 2021, is forcing both sides to scramble to buy more ads, mobilize hundreds of new staff members and arrange visits from national allies.

The stakes remain high, even though Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured that the party would hold the Senate. A victory by Mr. Warnock, who narrowly edged out Mr. Walker on Nov. 8 but fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, would give his party an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

With those variables in mind and little time to adjust strategy, both candidates sound largely the same. Mr. Walker is keeping to his winding, anecdote-filled and at times outlandish campaign speeches, peppered with criticisms of his opponent. Mr. Warnock is continuing to paint Mr. Walker as unqualified for office, using the more than $20 million he and allied groups have poured into advertising to castigate his rival on the airwaves.

“He has neither the competence nor the character,” Mr. Warnock said at a news conference this week. “He has demonstrated that not only does he not know the issues, he doesn’t seem terribly interested.”

Mr. Warnock has sought to portray Mr. Walker as unfit for office.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Mr. Warnock’s campaign is focusing on turning out Georgia’s Democratic base while garnering support from people who voted for Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, but did not support Mr. Walker, particularly those in Atlanta’s suburbs. The campaign is also aiming to cut into Mr. Walker’s gains in conservative counties that he narrowly won.

Mr. Walker, however, is spending the runoff period trying to close that gap in support between his and Mr. Kemp’s campaigns. Over the past two weeks, he has spent more time campaigning in Atlanta’s suburbs, home to many college-educated conservatives.

His campaign has also run more negative advertising about Mr. Warnock and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Democrat serves as senior pastor, amplifying stories about low-income tenants who were evicted from an apartment building owned by a for-profit entity with ties to the church.

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

The two parties’ four-week timeline is down from nine weeks during the 2020 runoff cycle, a change that was enacted under the major voting law that Republican state legislators in Georgia passed last year. Early voting in most counties will run during weekdays after Thanksgiving.

“It is really a continuation of the general election,” said Marci McCarthy, the chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party, who is helping coordinate turnout efforts for Mr. Walker’s campaign. This runoff contest, she said, feels far different from the early 2021 races, which “felt like a separate election.”

On the stump, Mr. Walker has yet to mention former President Donald J. Trump’s recent announcement of a third presidential campaign, and he has steered clear of the Republican infighting in Washington that has drawn national attention and resources away from his race. His campaign has kept to its habit of eschewing the news media: It has now held more than two dozen events in which Mr. Walker has not answered reporters’ questions. Representatives for Mr. Walker did not respond to requests for comment.

The most noticeable changes have been the candidates’ voter engagement efforts. In the days after the general election, Mr. Kemp, who won re-election with relative ease, turned his campaign’s grass-roots door-knocking and canvassing operation, with nearly 200 staff members, into a voter turnout team for Mr. Walker. The team is now funded by the Senate Leadership Fund, the leading super PAC for Senate Republicans. The Republican National Committee has also sent 400 field staff members to the state for voter engagement efforts.

Supporters of Mr. Walker in Peachtree City. National Republicans are pushing money and staff members into the runoff.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Mr. Warnock, for his part, has added field offices and 300 paid staff members to his get-out-the-vote operation, which brings its total number of staff members to more than 900, according to the campaign. The new field operation will be concentrated in both Metro Atlanta counties and those in southern and central Georgia.

Both parties are working to educate voters on the changes afoot under Georgia’s new election law. The shortened runoff period means that Georgians who were not registered to vote before Election Day will not be able to vote during the runoff.

And the law has complicated early voting in the runoff. State election officials initially said that early voting could not be held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, because of an earlier 2016 law that restricts early voting one or two days after a holiday. But Democrats, including Mr. Warnock’s campaign, sued to allow Saturday voting, and on Friday, a Fulton County judge ordered voting to be allowed on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

“The organizing imperative really remains the same, honestly,” said Jonae Wartel, a Democratic strategist who led Mr. Warnock’s 2020 runoff operation. “You just have a condensed timeline.”

Still, similar patterns have emerged: A carousel of Republican senators and party leaders have again traveled to Georgia to bolster Mr. Walker’s campaign, even as they try to prevent Mr. Trump from bringing his presidential campaign to the Peach State.

Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the departing chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, appeared with Mr. Walker during the first days of the runoff campaign and explained to voters that, while control of the Senate was already decided, an extra Republican seat in the chamber would still be a boon to the party.

For Democrats, Mr. Trump’s announcement of a 2024 campaign has provided an opening to tie the former president to Mr. Walker, whom he endorsed. A television advertisement for Mr. Warnock running in the Atlanta market showed footage from Mr. Trump’s speech on Tuesday evening in which he encouraged supporters to vote for Mr. Walker. At the end of the ad, the words “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker” flash across the screen.

For the Walker campaign, Mr. Kemp is one of its most important surrogates, particularly among the moderate and conservative-leaning voters who supported the governor’s re-election but did not vote for Mr. Walker on Nov. 8. The two will campaign together in an Atlanta suburb on Saturday. Mr. Warnock, by contrast, will spend the day in the deep-red counties of Forsyth and Cherokee, which overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Kemp and Mr. Walker.

The campaigns’ efforts have not taken the pressure off outside organizers who work to galvanize voters. LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the voter mobilization group Black Voters Matter, which helped elect Mr. Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff during the 2021 runoff races, described Georgia’s shortened runoff period as nightmarish and referenced the time loop from “Dr. Strange.”

“The short amount of time also creates the space for confusion,” she said, adding that her group and several others had less resources to turn out new and unlikely voters than they did two years ago. “It’s almost like the chaos is the point.”

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