ATLANTA — Former President Barack Obama returned to Georgia on Thursday, just weeks since his last visit here to energize Democrats in an only-recently-purple southern state.
Voters, Obama acknowledged, have reason to be weary. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat who narrowly won in the state’s January 2021 runoff, has had to make his case to Georgia voters over and over.
“This is the fifth time my name has been on the ballot in less than two years, for the same doggone job,” Warnock told the crowd gathered to see him and the former Democratic president.
But to finally serve a full six-year term, Warnock has to earn Georgia’s vote again — a runoff election that will take place on Tuesday against Republican Herschel Walker. The Thursday night gathering, held in an event space in the historic Pullman Yard, came on the eve of the final day of early voting.
Reading from a black binder about Warnock’s vote history in the Senate, Obama fired up the crowd about “what’s at stake” in the Dec. 6 runoff election, warning about “the difference between 50 and 51” seats for Democrats — which, as he put it, is “a lot.”
“You have the power to determine the course of this country,” Obama said, later mentioning the possibility of Republicans passing a national abortion ban in the future if they retake control of the Senate in 2024, when the map favors the GOP.
“If voters here in Georgia had stayed home two years ago, Republicans would have kept control of the Senate and they would have blocked every single piece of legislation that President Biden and Democrats passed,” Obama said.
Warnock, the pastor of the Atlanta church that Martin Luther King Jr. attended, tied the election to the long struggle of African Americans for equal rights, noting the crowd had gathered on the 67th anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to get up from a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Walker is also African American.
He reminded supporters of the “multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalition” that elected Georgia’s first African American senator two years ago.
Warnock received roaring applause when he poked fun at Walker, something Obama also did, referencing a series of outlandish comments the retired football star has made over the course of his candidacy.
“We all know some folks in our lives who, we don’t wish them ill will, they say crazy stuff … but you don’t give them serious responsibility,” Obama said.
“He was an amazing running back,” Warnock said of Walker. “And come next Tuesday, we’re going to send him running back to Texas.”
Walker, who was raised in the Peach State and was a star player at the University of Georgia, lived the majority of his adult life in Texas before returning to run for Senate in 2021.
The rally marked Obama’s second campaign visit to the state this fall, after the former president traveled to Georgia in late October to stump for Warnock and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who lost her race to incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.
As of Thursday morning, more than 1 million people had cast votes in the runoff election. The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office reported that the pace exceeded that of runoff elections in 2016 and 2018, though it remains to be seen how turnout will compare to the state’s January 2021 runoff, which featured two Senate races.
Voters this week have, in some cases, endured long lines. Lt. Gov. Geoff Dunan, a Republican who was critical of Walker ahead of the general election, said he stood in line for an hour on Wednesday before ultimately looking at his ballot and deciding both candidates were “disappointing.” Duncan said on CNN that he left the polling place without voting, an announcement that drew mockery from other high-profile Republicans who have united in support of Walker.
The actress America Ferrera, who has taken part in other campaign events in the state in recent days, opened the Warnock-Obama rally. She spoke in both English and Spanish to emphasize the need to mobilize Latino voters to the polls.
Republicans braced for the potential boost of an Obama get-out-the-vote visit. In the days leading up to Thursday, Walker highlighted the upcoming visit in fundraising appeals, including filming a video with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In the video, the pair framed the upcoming election as an opportunity not just to oust Warnock, but to “beat” the 44th president.
“Obama’s coming back to Georgia. He’ll create a lot of excitement,” Graham said. “But we need you. If you help us, we will beat Obama. We will beat Warnock.”
The campaign signed its fundraising emails with a note that Obama drew thousands of supporters during his last visit to the state — and “now he’s looking to have a bigger impact in the runoff.”
Walker on Thursday held two campaign events, one in Columbus and another, during the Obama rally, in Woodstock. Former Secretary State Mike Pompeo, among Republicans believed to be eyeing a presidential bid in 2024, was scheduled to headline both rallies but didn’t make it. A family emergency, the Walker campaign said, prevented Pompeo from traveling to the state.
While continuing to hold multiple campaign rallies each day this week, Walker has shied away from answering media questions except from conservative outlets. As he did throughout the general election, Walker during the runoff has continued to face a steady stream of unflattering news coverage. Most recently, that included news that Walker has continued to list a Texas house as his primary residence for tax purposes, while reporting from the Daily Beast on Thursday featured an ex-girlfriend who said she feared Walker was going to ‘beat” her during an altercation in 2005 — adding to a list of other past allegations of domestic violence by Walker.
Walker’s campaign and GOP allies, meanwhile, have continued to draw attention to a series of eviction notices filed against low-income tenants of a building owned by Warnock’s church — a storyline the incumbent senator has also sought to avoid talking about.
This year’s runoff in Georgia has not drawn the same level of national attention — or national money — that the Senate runoffs did two years ago. That’s in part because of the shortened timeline of this year’s month-long runoff campaign, compared to two months in late 2020. The stakes are also lower this time around: control of the Senate is not up for grabs, since Democrats secured 50 seats in the Nov. 8 election.
But a host of political groups from both parties have still fanned across the state in an effort to mobilize a weary electorate subjected to more political advertisements — and calls to vote — than the rest of the country over the past two years.
Democrats, who have emphasized early voting, were encouraged by vote totals last weekend and early in the week, though Republicans are holding out hope that voters will show out in force on Election Day, when vote totals favor the GOP.
While Walker has not discussed or urged his supporters to vote early, his surrogates have begun to do so.
The evangelical Christian political leader Ralph Reed, who has traveled with Walker in recent days, told supporters gathered in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Columbus on Thursday to “vote either today or tomorrow” if they hadn’t already. And he advised them to spend the remaining days knocking on neighbors’ doors and sending text messages to friends, urging them to vote for Walker.
“Ignore the pollsters. Ignore the press. Ignore the media here,” Reed said. “There’s only one poll that matters, and it’s you.”
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