ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia voters have cast more than 1 million ballots ahead of the Dec. 6 U.S. Senate runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, with Warnock looking to juice an apparent Democratic head start in early voting with a visit Thursday from Barack Obama.
The former president will campaign with Warnock on the eve of the final day of early voting. The rally, which promises to be the largest event of Warnock's four-week runoff blitz, underscores the two parties' different approaches to early voting in the final contest of the 2022 election.
Democrats have employed an all-hands-on-deck push to bank as many votes as possible while Republicans, especially Walker, have taken a less aggressive approach that could leave the GOP nominee heavily dependent on runoff Election Day turnout.
"I think the turnout we're seeing is good, and I want to encourage people to stick with it," Warnock said as he campaigned this week, comparing voting to waiting in line at a popular Atlanta lunch spot. "The other day I went to the Slutty Vegan, and the line was wrapped around the block, and folks still waited and got their sandwiches," he said. "I went and voted yesterday, and it was pretty painless."
Walker, meanwhile, is expected to vote on the runoff's Election Day, as he did in November for the midterms.
Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes out of almost 4 million cast in the general election but fell short of the majority required under Georgia law. That triggered a four-week runoff blitz, with a shorter early voting window than occurred during the first round.
Statewide early voting data, including some weekend and Thanksgiving weekdays in certain counties, shows higher overall turnout in the most heavily Democratic counties and congressional districts. Still, both parties are finding data to tout as they jockey for any advantage in the final contest of the 2022 midterm election cycle, and both campaigns agree generally that Warnock will lead among early voters, as he did in the first round, while Walker will have the advantage in Election Day ballots, as he did in November. The respective margins will determine the eventual winner.
TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, analyzed the identities of the 830,000-plus voters who'd cast ballots by the end of Tuesday and concluded that Democrats have increased their advantage by 14 percentage points over what it was with six days to go before the Nov. 8 election. That analysis did not include the 240,000-plus additional ballots cast Wednesday.
Walker's campaign manager, Scott Paradise, pushed back on notions of Democrats' domination. He argued that their advantage comes only because it was heavily Democratic metro-area counties that held weekend early voting, while more Republican areas waited until the statewide mandatory early voting window that began Monday. Republicans had sued, unsuccessfully, in state court trying to block Saturday early voting for the runoff.
Paradise said a Walker campaign analysis found that nine of the 10 counties with the highest turnout Monday were counties Walker won in November with a combined 70% of the vote. He added that of the state's most populous counties -- those with more than 100,000 registered voters -- it was two Republican strongholds, Hall and Forsyth, that posted the highest turnout percentages Monday. Paradise said those trends reflect high enthusiasm among Republicans.
Still, Republicans have catching up to do.
According to state voting data compiled by Ryan Anderson, an independent analyst in Atlanta, four of the state's five Democratic-held congressional districts had already seen advance turnout through Tuesday of at least 43% of the total early vote for the November election, when every Georgia county had at least 17 days of early in-person voting. Just one of Georgia's nine Republican-held congressional districts had eclipsed that 43% mark.
Warnock first won the seat as part of concurrent Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, 2021, when he and Jon Ossoff prevailed over Republican incumbents to give Democrats narrow control of the Senate for the start of President Joe Biden's tenure. Warnock won a special election and now is seeking a full six-year term.
This time, Senate control is not in play: Democrats have already secured 50 seats and have Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote. That puts pressure on both Warnock's and Walker's campaigns to convince Georgia voters that it's worth their time to cast a second ballot, even if the national stakes aren't as high.
Warnock got about 70% of his overall first-round votes from advance voting; for Walker, it was about 58%. That translated to an advantage of more than 256,000 votes for Warnock. Walker answered with an Election Day advantage of more than 200,000.
The senator's campaign, Democratic Party committees and aligned political action committees have tailored their voter turnout efforts toward early voting. Republicans have countered with their own wide-ranging push, including a direct-mail push from one super political action committee featuring Gov. Brian Kemp, who got 200,000 more votes than Walker to win a second term comfortably.
Yet Republicans are battling some internal party narratives, including from former President Donald Trump, that question some advance voting, especially mail-in ballots, pushing some Republicans toward an Election Day ballot. As recently as Tuesday, Trump declared on social media that "YOU CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR & FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS -- NEVER, NEVER NEVER. WON'T AND CAN'T HAPPEN!!!"
Walker himself does not mention early in-person voting or mail-in ballots at all as he urges his supporters to vote.
Democrats, meanwhile, see Obama as a key figure in repeating Warnock's advance voting lead, because the former president remains intensely popular among core Democrats and has a solid standing among independents.