WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) – Ads featuring candidates’ ex-wives. Cries of “liars” flying in both directions. Stories of a squalid apartment building and forced abortions. Questioning the independence of the opponent. His intellect. His mental stability. His religious faith.
Georgia’s drawn-out Senate campaign between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and his Republican rival, football legend Herschel Walker, is growing bitter as their Dec. 6 runoff approaches. Given that Democrats have already secured a majority in the Senate, it’s a striking contrast from two years ago, when the state’s two runoffs were largely about which party would control the chamber in Washington.
“Herschel Walker is not serious,” Warnock told supporters recently in central Georgia, saying Walker is “mostly lying” and tinkering with the basics of public policy. “But the elections are very serious. Don’t confuse the two things.”
Walker believes that Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, is a “hypocrite” and a servant of President Joe Biden. Underscoring the insult, Walker refers to the current president as “Scooby-Doo,” complete with a cartoon dog gibberish impression.
The ads reflect a furious push by candidates in the four weeks between the Nov. 8 general election and the runoff to convince their core supporters to vote again. For Walker, it also means attracting more independents and moderates to his campaign after he defeated fellow Republican on the ticket, Gov. Brian Kemp, by 200,000 votes.
Warnock led Walker by 37,000 of the nearly 4 million votes cast in the first round, but the senator fell short of the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
In many ways, the shift from his first run-off campaign is exactly what Warnock wanted: a straight choice between two contenders. Two years ago, then-President Donald Trump, fresh off defeat, and Biden, then president-elect, made multiple trips to Georgia to shed light on the national stakes in the races between Warnock and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Sen. David Perdue as control of the Senate hung in the balance.
Trump ended up alienating his supporters and many moderates with his false claims of a rigged presidential election in 2020. Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories left the Senate split 50-50, with Democrats taking control based on Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote. Warnock also became Georgia’s first black senator.
This year, with Warnock running for a full six-year term after winning a special election in 2021, Democrats have already guaranteed control of the Senate by flipping the Pennsylvania seat. A Warnock victory would give Democrats an outright 51-49 majority, meaning the parties would not have to negotiate a power-sharing deal.
Warnock’s preferred emphasis throughout much of his re-election bid has been on Washington deals and the personal values he brings to the job. It took until the final stages of the campaign — only after two women accused Walker, an opponent of abortion rights, of encouraging and paying for their abortions — that the senator stepped up his attacks, claiming Walker was “unprepared” and “unfit” for the job.
“My opponent lies about everything,” Warnock said in the recent campaign, marking a series of Walker’s repeated falsehoods and exaggerations. “He said he was a police officer. He didn’t. He said he worked for the FBI. He didn’t. He said he graduated from the University of Georgia. He didn’t. He said he was valedictorian of his class. He wasn’t. … He said he has another business with 800 employees. I had a.”
Walker, by turns, has enjoyed the competition since winning the GOP nomination in the spring.
“Herschel is a competitor. He’s very suited to mano a mano,” said Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, noting the candidate’s athletic prowess as a football back, kick boxer and Olympic bobsledder.
Indeed, Walker bases his attacks on Warnock’s strengths as the pastor of the famous church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Walker criticized Warnock over an Atlanta apartment building owned by Warnock’s church foundation, where residents complained to The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet, about eviction notices and poor conditions.
“What he’s doing in this apartment building at Columbia Towers is not right,” Walker said recently at a campaign rally in suburban Atlanta. “You shouldn’t put Jesus’ name on what you do to people, and don’t put Martin Luther King’s name on it. … You are not Jesus and you are not Dr. King.”
Warnock, who says no Columbia Tower residents have been evicted, includes Walker’s attacks on a list of documented exaggerations and lies by the challenger. “What kind of man is that lying on the church?” Warnock said in Macon. “This is not the first time people have attacked the Ebenezer Baptist Church. They attacked Martin Luther King Jr. I’m in good company.”
However, when asked if he had reconsidered his church’s management of Columbia Towers, Warnock deflected: “I’ve already answered the question. I am proud of what my church does to feed and house the hungry and homeless every week.”
Walker also accuses Warnock of “getting rich” as a senator, which is the pastor’s $7,500-a-month housing allowance from the church. The payments do not constitute a violation of Senate ethics rules that limit outside income for senators.
At least once during the second round, Walker suggested that Warnock was a neglectful father. Warnock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the comment “crossed the line.” Earlier in the campaign, Walker publicly acknowledged his three children for the first time, only doing so after The Daily Beast reported their existence. Warnock did not mention those children in any of his criticisms of Walker.
Walker, meanwhile, has not taken questions from reporters at an open campaign event since late October, when a second accuser came forward to say he pressured her to have an abortion — contradicting his advocacy as a candidate for a national ban on all abortions. Walker denied the women’s claims.
The ex-wives of both candidates also appear in the campaign, although the two themselves avoid the topic, leaving the discussion of their marriages mostly to paid advertisements. In one ad, Warnock’s ex-wife tells Atlanta police that he ran over her foot. The Republican ad doesn’t say the police report says officers found no physical evidence to support her claim. The Democratic ad features an interview with Walker’s first wife in which he alleges that he threatened her with violence, circumstances that Walker confirmed in his autobiography.
Since the two met for their lone debate on October 14, Warnock has lashed out at Walker for his lack of detail on policy and his sometimes misunderstanding of what policy he is debating.
Warnock is promoting his new federal bill capping insulin costs for Medicare recipients, noting that Walker said diabetics can manage their health with “proper nutrition,” a practice that is insufficient for insulin-dependent diabetes patients.
“Maybe you should apply to be a dietician. I’m running for the United States Senate,” Warnock said in Macon.
He lashed out when Walker said the United States was “not ready” for climate action and should “still have those gas-guzzling cars” that he said already have “good emissions” standards. Warnock added gleeful mockery when Walker took a tangent about vampires in a recent campaign speech.
“I mean, who says things like that?” Warnock asked supporters.
Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, insisted that the Republicans’ best argument remains Warnock’s alignment with Democrats on economic policy. Still, he admits the tone of the campaign is dark.
“We will certainly continue to aggressively pursue the case against Warnock,” he said, “and I suspect they will do the same.”
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