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Early voting breaks records in Georgia as bitter Senate race tests red-to-blue drift

Herschel Walker, Sen. Warnock’s GOP challenger, has closed the gap in polling in the final stretch of a race that'll test the Democratic-friendly shift in this former Republican stronghold.
Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker
Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images file; Megan Varner/Getty Images file

SMYRNA, Ga. — A record-breaking early voting stretch has ended in Georgia, and the two candidates in a bitterly contested Senate race are making their closing pitches in the final sprint to Election Day.

The contest will test the Democratic-friendly drift in this former Republican stronghold, which voted to elect President Joe Biden and two Democratic senators two years ago. Now, one of those senators, Raphael Warnock, is fighting for his political life in a tougher environment for his party against GOP rival Herschel Walker, a former football star who has been mired in controversy.

More than 2.5 million Georgians have already cast ballots by mail or voting early in person, setting a new record. According to the NBC News early vote tracker, 49% are registered Democrats and 42% are Republicans; 70% of them are age 50 or older, and 56% are women.

Down the stretch, recent polling shows Walker closing the gap to a statistical dead heat as Biden’s low approval rating and economic pain create headwinds for Warnock and Democratic candidates to navigate in battleground states across the country.

Walker’s closing TV ad,“Strong,” in heavy rotation on the Georgia airwaves, puts Biden front and center, calling him “a failing president” before a straight-to-camera shot of Walker arguing that “families were stronger” two years ago before he came along.

“You went to Washington to say you gonna represent Georgia and you decide to represent Joe Biden,” Walker said of Warnock during a Thursday rally at a strip mall in this city just outside Atlanta. “You went to Washington and say you gonna represent the people but yet you voted with him 96% of the time.”

Warnock is closing this cycle by highlighting his push to lower costs and his bipartisan vows to “work with anyone if it helps Georgia.” He has also escalated his attack on Walker as unqualified to be a senator, citing allegations by women he dated that he made violent threats and pushed them have an abortion (which he denies).

“I think the people of Georgia are fired up. And they can see the differences between me and my opponent. I can tell you there’s no comparison at all,” Warnock told reporters at a recent campaign stop. “Character matters. And this is somebody who has demonstrated that not only is he not ready for the job, he’s not fit.”

The election tests a series of crosscurrents within the Peach State. Will Republican-leaning rural areas see strong turnout? Will Democrats continue the show of force at the ballot box that they delivered in recent elections? Will Atlanta-area suburbanites and white college graduates who rejected the GOP under former President Donald Trump stick with Democrats or flip back?

“The story is going to be, on the suburban margins — can Democrats get to the same level they got in 2020 to make up for losing ground in rural areas?” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who helps conduct the NBC News survey. “That is the challenge. Because not all of the Biden vote in 2020 was for Biden — there was a component of that vote that was against Trump.”

Warnock is making an appeal to those crossover voters, many of whom tell pollsters they’ll vote for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp but aren’t sold on Walker and open to backing the Democrat. Warnock and his allies are running a series of ads featuring testimonials from a wide variety of voters who say they cannot support Walker, whose early endorsement from Trump propelled his candidacy.

Walker, meanwhile, is seeking to consolidate Republicans as his internal polls show Warnock ahead among Democratic voters compared to Walker among Republican voters. At the rally here in Smyrna, Walker went after transgender athletes in women’s sports, mocked Biden’s son Hunter and disparaged the use of gender-identiy pronouns.

“We’re a weak country because we’re talking about putting pronouns in our military. Pronoun? What the heck is a pronoun?” he jeered. “My pronoun is sick and tired of this pronoun stuff.”

Walker rally-goers seemed to struggle with his turbulent past, but several of them said they were willing to overlook it.

“He’s been forgiven about his past,” said Stan Coates, a pastor from the nearby city of Marietta who came to watch Walker.

“Everyone has baggage,” said Joni Lahue of Marietta. “He’s admitted he had some issues.” She said she’s more worried about drugs and terrorists coming into the U.S. through the border with Mexico.

“A lot of people have a turbulent past,” said Carolyn McDonald of Cobb County, citing Warnock’s public spats with his ex-wife. “To me they both had problems. You gotta look past that.”

Both campaigns are holding out hope for winning outright and avoiding overtime, but if neither candidate tops 50% on Election Night, the race will proceed to a runoff on Dec. 6.

“We’ll deal with things as they come. I think we may very well get a verdict on Tuesday. We’ll see,” Warnock said. “But the fact that people are turning out in record numbers is a great thing. I think it’s great for democracy.”

Walker spokesman Will Kiley said the “momentum” in the candidate's favor has made them optimistic about winning on the first ballot. “Come November 9th Herschel Walker will be the next senator-elect for the great state of Georgia.”

Rep. Nikema Williams, who represents an Atlanta-based district and chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, told NBC News that it’s “extremely important” that the state stays blue this year.

“We elected our first Jewish senator from the state of Georgia, our first Black senator from the state of Georgia. People tried to tell us it wasn’t possible,” Williams said in an interview. “We have an opportunity to show that 2020 wasn’t just a fluke. 2020 was about years and years of organizing on the ground and the voters here in Georgia flexing their power showing their power at the polls, and that’s what we’re looking to replicate.”