For Weary Georgia Voters, Senate Runoff Brings a Sense of Déjà Vu

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ATLANTA — Georgia voters should be forgiven for their sense of déjà vu: Once again, one of their major elections has gone to a runoff. Once again, the nation is watching. Once again, after a bitterly fought campaign, the stakes are high.

So are the costs. According to AdImpact, a media tracking firm, the general election contest between Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, and Herschel Walker, the Republican challenger, generated $195 million in radio and TV ads, many of them blisteringly negative. And more are coming. So perhaps voters should also be forgiven for needing to fend off election fatigue.

“I probably will vote, but there are many times in my mind where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is just too much,’” said Andrea Rivera, the owner of an advertising firm who describes herself as conservative and lives in Chamblee, a northern suburb of Atlanta.

Like many Georgians, Ms. Rivera, 48, has closely followed the platforms and trajectories of Mr. Warnock, an Atlanta pastor, and Mr. Walker, the former University of Georgia football star. And like many Georgians, Ms. Rivera says that her fatigue is mixed with what she calls an “empowering” realization: that once again, her vote will resonate beyond the state’s borders.

On Saturday morning, the Senate results in Georgia and Nevada remained unresolved, leaving control of that chamber uncertain. Even if Nevada is decided soon, the Georgia seat remains critical. For the Democrats, it could tip the balance of power in the Senate or offer Democratic leaders more leverage. For the Republicans, it could be a chance to take back the chamber, or at least widen slightly the party’s ability to block legislation.

In Tuesday’s general election, Mr. Warnock finished less than one percentage point ahead of Mr. Walker, falling just short of the 50 percent threshold required to avert a runoff, due in part to a Libertarian candidate who siphoned off about 2 percent of the vote.

Now the two must find a way to surf a choppy mix of enthusiasm and weariness among Georgia voters, charging into the Dec. 6 runoff amid a swirl of attack ads, new campaign spending and out-of-state visits from boldface names — not to mention the looming specter of the mercurial former President Donald J. Trump, who supports Mr. Walker and is teasing the possibility of another presidential bid.

Such is the heady new normal in a state that for most of this century had been a lock for Republican presidential candidates. That changed in 2020, when President Biden squeaked past Mr. Trump in Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes. Mr. Trump and his allies spread false claims that the election system was rigged. That persuaded some Republicans to stay home in a subsequent pair of runoff races that in January 2021 were won by Mr. Warnock and a fellow Democrat, Jon Ossoff, giving their party control of the Senate, and Mr. Biden a tremendous advantage as he began his presidency.

The entire nation was riveted. For Georgians, the newfound attention has taken some getting used to.

“Two years ago, the notion that I was on a get-out-the-vote Zoom call with Sean Penn was kind of comic, but also kind of exciting,” said Kelly Girtz, the Democratic mayor of the consolidated city-county government in Athens, Ga. “Just to see that other people were recognizing the importance of the state’s intellectual and political resources, and our heft on the political scene.”

In a first for Georgia, a state with a long history of institutional racism, both candidates are Black. That has something to do with rapidly changing demographics, which have generally benefited Democrats like Mr. Warnock. It also has something to do with Georgia’s enduring obsession with football, which has long helped Mr. Walker — arguably the greatest running back in college football history — win the votes of some of the state’s most conservative white voters.

Mr. Walker has attacked Mr. Warnock for engaging in what he has characterized as a divisive form of anti-white racial politics. “Most everything he was trying to introduce had to do with the color of someone’s skin,” Mr. Walker told the nearly all-white crowd at a rally on Thursday in Canton, about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta.

Tony Williams, 61, a retired power company worker, was in the packed crowd in a “Let’s Go Brandon” ballcap, referring to a meme created to insult Mr. Biden. He said he had fond memories of the college championship that the Bulldogs won in 1980, thanks largely to Mr. Walker’s bruising play. The football successes said something about the man’s character, Mr. Williams said, and spoke more clearly to him than the scandals that have dogged Mr. Walker throughout the campaign, including allegations that he helped two women get abortions despite speaking out against the procedure as a candidate.

“I’m apprehensive,” Mr. Williams, who is white, said of the runoff. “Herschel’s not the man they’re portraying him to be.”

Jeff Jolly, the chairman of the local Republican Party in Grady County, near the Florida line, said the party there was gearing up for several more weeks of pro-Walker events, phone banks and canvassing sessions. “Herschel’s history at the University of Georgia is going to help us get the vote out: You’ve got to go vote for Herschel. Herschel needs you,” he said.

But Mr. Jolly added that some conservatives have no faith in Georgia’s voting equipment, a result of the Trump-backed disinformation campaign after the November 2020 election. Mr. Jolly said he and his family still vote, but only using absentee ballots, because they fear that regular ballots are subject to tampering. (An absentee ballot is allowed in the runoff if it is requested by Nov. 28.)

In suburban Atlanta on Friday, Feroza Syed, a grass-roots Democratic activist, said that she was planning to get seriously involved in the runoff contest on behalf of Mr. Warnock. Ms. Syed, 41, who lives in Tucker, Ga., is among a group of women who in recent years helped turn Atlanta’s vote-rich rim of northern suburbs from red to blue, driven largely by their intense distaste for Trumpism and Mr. Trump himself.

After working hard during the 2020 general election and 2021 runoff races, Ms. Syed, a real-estate broker, eased off a bit from political activity before this year’s general election. She was worn out, she said, but felt compelled to get back to work for this runoff.

“I think that your average Georgian, in general, is exhausted,” she said. “We’ve become an incredibly important battleground state. The ads, the fund-raisers, the events — it’s just nonstop.”

Some voters were wondering whether Mr. Warnock would benefit if the Nevada race breaks for the Democrats, on the theory that it would lessen the stakes in Georgia and persuade Republican voters turned off by Mr. Walker’s scandals to stay home.

Others were trying to game out what kind of impact some of the biggest names in national politics might have if they weigh in on the race. John Binder, 73, a retired consultant who supports Mr. Walker, said he hoped that Mr. Trump would not get involved in the runoff, fearing he would be too divisive.

“I think he should just get in the background,” he said of Mr. Trump. “Here’s the bottom line: He lost.”

Ms. Syed, the suburban Democrat, said that Mr. Warnock should benefit from the get-out-the-vote infrastructure developed by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who on Tuesday lost her second bid to become Georgia governor. But Ms. Syed was not sure if it would help Mr. Warnock if Ms. Abrams, who is also Black, campaigned with him.

“Apparently there’s still a lot of racism and misogyny here,” she said. “I’m not your average Georgia voter. So I don’t how that would play out.”

Predictable differences on policy separate the Walker and Warnock camps. A number of people at the Canton rally said they could never vote for Mr. Warnock because he supports abortion rights. “How can you be pro-abortion and be a Christian?” said Laura Shoup, a stay-at-home parent.

Perched on a stool at work behind the counter of a pizza spot in downtown Macon, Za’nija Parker, 21, said that abortion was a motivating issue for her, too. She had been stunned to see abortion access rolled back in Georgia after the Supreme Court decision in June. She believed voting for Mr. Warnock could help restore that access.

“One vote can change a lot,” Ms. Parker said. She was old enough to participate in the 2020 election but did not. She regretted it. “I’m making sure I vote this time,” she said, adding that she had voted in the general election as well.

Recent pro-Walker TV ads have featured footage of Mr. Warnock’s ex-wife, who accused him of running over her foot during an argument. Paramedics were unable to locate evidence of physical injury to her foot, and Mr. Warnock was not charged with a crime. But on the character front, Democrats have continually attacked Mr. Walker, who has exaggerated his business and academic record; his ex-wife has said he threatened to kill her. Mr. Walker attributed past erratic and threatening behavior to a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.

Mr. Warnock’s campaign is planning to continue to hammer on issues of character, while using some of Mr. Walker’s baffling statements on topics like air quality to raise questions about his competence.

Despite being a conservative, Ms. Rivera, the advertising executive, said that these issues prompted her to vote against Mr. Walker in the general election. She planned to do so again in the runoff.

“It makes me really sad that our leadership in the Republican Party is so lacking that we would champion this buffoon,” she said. “Next thing you know, we’ll have Kanye West running — and Republicans supporting him for president.”

Despite the onslaught of TV ads, the turnout rate in Georgia was lower in the general election than it was in 2018 and 2020, creating conflicting realities for get-out-the vote groups. “There are some voters that are oversaturated and some voters who are not tapped at all,” said Yadira Sanchez, the executive director of Poder Latinx, a nonpartisan group that focuses on mobilizing Latino voters and has set a goal of knocking on 20,000 doors before the runoff.

Leslie Palomino, who helps leads canvassing efforts for the group, said that some of the voters they have targeted in recent days have sounded surprised to see them.

“There have been a few doors where they have been saying, ‘Oh, wasn’t Election Day just on Tuesday?’” she said. “‘Why are you knocking on my door again?’”

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon contributed reporting.

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