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Georgia Senate rivals, with little time to spare, sprint toward runoff

US Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) takes a selfie with supporters at the conclusion of a campaign rally outside the Democratic Party North Fulton headquarters on Nov. 19 in Sandy Springs, Georgia.Brandon Bell/Getty

ATLANTA — As Republicans steamed this past 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?” Walker, 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, Walker and his Democratic rival, Sen. 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 Warnock, who narrowly edged out Walker on Nov. 8 but fell short of the 50% threshold needed to win outright, would give his party an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

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With those variables in mind and little time to adjust strategy, both candidates sound largely the same. Walker is keeping to his winding, anecdote-filled and at times outlandish campaign speeches, peppered with criticisms of his opponent. Warnock is continuing to paint 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,” Warnock said at a news conference this past week. “He has demonstrated that not only does he not know the issues, he doesn’t seem terribly interested.”

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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 Walker, particularly those in Atlanta’s suburbs. The campaign is also aiming to cut into Walker’s gains in conservative counties that he narrowly won.

Walker, however, is spending the runoff period trying to close that gap in support between his and 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 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 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, chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party, who is helping coordinate turnout efforts for Walker’s campaign. This runoff contest, she said, feels far different from the early 2021 races, which “felt like a separate election.”

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On the stump, Walker has yet to mention former President Donald 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 Walker has not answered reporters’ questions. Representatives for 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, Kemp, who won reelection with relative ease, turned his campaign’s grassroots door-knocking and canvassing operation, with nearly 200 staff members, into a voter turnout team for 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.

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.

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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 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 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 Walker’s campaign, even as they try to prevent Trump from bringing his presidential campaign to the Peach State.

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

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.