At a revamped rail yard warehouse on the east side of Atlanta, former president Barack Obama delivered a jolt of his renowned campaign flair in a bid to help Democrats win the final contest of the US midterm elections.
Democrats performed far better than expected in congressional races across America last month as voters rejected many of the most extremist Republican candidates backed by former president Donald Trump.
But one pivotal contest in Georgia remains in limbo, pitting incumbent Democratic senator Raphael Warnock against Republican former American football star Herschel Walker, with a run-off election to be held on Tuesday after neither candidate topped 50 per cent on November 8.
“Many of the most egregious, and potentially dangerous, and let’s face it, somewhat crazy folks, election deniers, got beat, that’s the good news,” Obama told the crowd on Thursday. “I’m here to tell you we can’t let up, we can’t tune out, we can’t be complacent.”
A victory for Warnock, a pastor at the late Martin Luther King Jr’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and who was first elected to the Senate after winning a run-off in January 2021, would be of tremendous importance for Democrats in Congress and President Joe Biden.
It would give Democrats 51 out of the 100 Senate seats, compared with the current 50-50 split that only grants them a majority because Vice-president Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes. The ability of any senator to block any of Biden’s nominations or legislation would be limited, and Democrats would have an extra buffer heading into the 2024 elections.
But strategists from both parties say the race will still be close given that Georgia is a very politically even and polarised state. After being Republican terrain for years, victory for Democrats in the two Senate run-offs after the November 2020 election gave the party control of the upper house. Warnock only prevailed in the first round this year by 0.9 percentage points.
“There is an enormous level of energy and enthusiasm, and I think it’s even greater than what we saw in November,” said Abigail Collazo, a Democratic strategist who has worked in Georgia. “That said, run-offs are tricky: it’s still going to be a very tight race: the Warnock campaign cannot afford to take anything for granted.”
Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia, said: “The Democrats have done a big push on early voting — they have banked hundreds of thousands of votes — but Republicans are catching up.”
On the stump, Warnock has been sharpening his contrast with Walker mainly by depicting his opponent as unfit for office. “This race is about character and competence,” Warnock said. “This is not about Republican and Democrat, this is not about right and left, this is about the difference between right and wrong.”
Although Walker is a sporting legend in the state, he has been engulfed in scandals ranging from domestic violence allegations to revelations about secret children and payments for women to have abortions. He recently made a bizarre reference to wanting to be a vampire rather than a werewolf; he has also faced scrutiny over a tax break he claimed for a primary residence in Texas rather than Georgia.
“He’s weird, he’s dumb, he’s unqualified, he’s a joke, that’s the message,” one former Republican state aide said of the closing attacks on Walker coming from Warnock and his campaign.
Obama certainly mocked the werewolf comments during his rally on Thursday. “Walker has been talking about issues that are of great importance to the people of Georgia, like whether it’s better to be a vampire or a werewolf,” the former president said. “This is a debate that I must confess I once had myself. When I was seven. Then I grew up.”
Walker has been endorsed by Trump, but they have not campaigned together ahead of the run-off. Trump’s interventions in the 2022 elections have been blamed by many Republicans for spoiling what should have been a much stronger set of results.
Trump’s announcement that he is seeking another term in the White House in 2024 — as well as the furore over his dinner last week with white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes — have not helped Walker either.
“A lot of Democrats understood full well how shockingly unqualified the opposition is and are coming out in droves,” said Nick Shimkin, an organiser helping to turn out voters for Warnock in Athens, a small city 70 miles east of Atlanta, who attended Thursday’s rally.
“I’ve canvassed, I personally phonebanked and donated money,” said Metowi Willingham, a 35-year-old hairstylist who was at the campaign event. “So I know it’s gonna be a win,” she added hopefully.
Walker has gained the backing of Brian Kemp, the popular Republican governor of Georgia who was re-elected in the midterms. And some of the big concerns about inflation, crime and immigration that fuelled Republican candidates’ success nationally this year are still present in the southern state.
As Warnock campaigned with Obama, Walker was joined by Mike Pompeo, former US secretary of state under Trump, to attack compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations in the military. “What Biden and Warnock are doing to our warriors is immoral and it is an act of treason,” Walker said.
But perceptions of Walker not being up to the job have been getting harder to shake off.
“I don’t think he is the right choice for us, just in terms of experience, and, you know, just some of the character issues that have come out,” said Katharine Kelley, 59, a centrist Democrat and commercial real estate investor.
Kelley was queueing outside an early voting polling station in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighbourhood to vote for Warnock: “He’s responsible and balanced.”