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Voters head to the polls for Georgia's runoff election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 2022 election is finally coming to an end in Georgia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After a record-setting period of early voting, polls are open one more day. This is a runoff election. Voters are deciding between the top two candidates for U.S. Senate in the first round back in November. A victory for Senator Raphael Warnock just two years ago helped to give Democrats control of the Senate, and now Warnock faces a challenge from Herschel Walker, who rode his football fame to the Republican nomination.

MARTIN: WABE's Sam Gringlas has been covering this campaign for the last year. He is with us now from Atlanta. Hey, Sam. What a year.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Yes, it certainly has been.

MARTIN: So you've been on the road with both of these candidates. What have the final few days of the campaign been like?

GRINGLAS: This is a race that has been almost as much about the biographies of these two candidates as the policy positions that they support. Herschel Walker has leaned into his status as one of the University of Georgia's most revered players to deflect really one controversy after the next over the course of this campaign, including allegations of domestic abuse and claims that he paid for ex-girlfriends' abortions despite his anti-abortion stance as a candidate. He's denied those claims, but here's Walker talking football at a Sunday rally on the lot of this massive Chevy dealership.

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HERSCHEL WALKER: You saw Georgia won the SEC championship, didn't you? You saw a lot of people get out there and play, and they did it as one. They did it together. That's what we got to do right now. We got to do it together, and that's how we're going to win.

GRINGLAS: Raphael Warnock is senior pastor at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Atlanta. He talks a lot about King, especially with students, like during this Monday rally at Georgia Tech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed before I was born, but his voice captured my imagination. And part of what I was drawn to was the way in which he used his faith not as a weapon to crush other people, but as a bridge to bring us together.

GRINGLAS: So you've got these two unique candidates that are each representative of these two really different and central institutions here in Georgia.

MARTIN: Yeah. So almost $80 million has been spent on TV ads in this race in just the last month, which is crazy. Is that investment likely to get people to the polls?

GRINGLAS: Well, it is very hard to turn on the TV right now without seeing basically back-to-back-to-back campaign ads for an entire commercial break. The reality is that this is a short runoff window - just four weeks, like you mentioned - and so you have got to educate voters really fast that they have to vote one more time. I will be watching the turnout strength for voters under 30 and Black voters. Warnock has also been making appeals to voters who went for Republican Governor Brian Kemp in November but did not vote for Walker. Whether these groups turn out for Warnock will be really key. Walker needs to amp up turnout among the state's most conservative voters. The question is whether Republican turnout on Election Day can be robust enough to overcome Democrats' advantage in these early votes.

MARTIN: So, Sam, Democrats are going to control the U.S. Senate no matter what happens tonight in this runoff. How is that changing the dynamic, if at all?

GRINGLAS: Well, both campaigns are arguing that this one seat is really a big deal, even if it doesn't decide the balance of power. I have talked to a lot of voters at these stops, and I think part of why this race is still energizing people is the fact that who Georgia sends to the Senate is really a statement of the state's identity and its political trajectory. That is really pressing right now, given Georgia is becoming more purple and the country is wading through such a fraught political moment.

MARTIN: WABE's Sam Gringlas in Atlanta, thank you so much, Sam.

GRINGLAS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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