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Georgia voters cast ballots in the country's last unresolved U.S. Senate race

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Early voting is underway in Georgia to decide the country's last unresolved U.S. Senate race.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock is in a runoff with Republican challenger Herschel Walker, the former football star.

MARTÍNEZ: WABE's Sam Gringlas has been covering the race. He joins us now from Atlanta. Sam, mentioned early voting, starting all over Georgia today. But didn't some counties get started over the weekend?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Yeah, almost 200,000 people have already voted in this runoff. Georgia's most populous counties pretty much all opened early voting over the weekend. And at some polling places, lines wrapped around the building. That Saturday voting day - it came about after a legal fight between the state and Democratic groups who disagreed over whether Georgia law allowed it. The Warnock campaign pushed really hard for Saturday voting because the runoff is really quick under Georgia's new voting law. It's just four weeks. Election officials like Dele Lowman Smith in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, have also been scrambling to prep for this runoff while also certifying the last election.

DELE LOWMAN SMITH: It has been nonstop for our staff and just a very punishing timeline.

GRINGLAS: And early voting - it's going to last through Friday.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, for those who don't know, this is how it works. In Georgia, runoffs happen when no candidate tops 50% of the vote - so kind of like a midterms in overtime. So have the two candidates, Sam, tweaked their message at all for this final stretch?

GRINGLAS: Well, Raphael Warnock is framing this runoff as a choice about competence and character. Herschel Walker comes with baggage, including allegations of domestic violence. And last month, Walker got 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Governor Brian Kemp did. So Warnock has been explicitly appealing to Republican voters who did not vote for Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Tell your Republican friends, if you want a practical senator, you've got one sitting in the United States Senate right now. And if you send me back to the Senate, I'm going to keep looking for ways to do the work on behalf of all of the people of Georgia.

GRINGLAS: The Walker campaign is trying to focus on President Biden and Democrats in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: We got people in Washington that've gotten too weak. All they want to do is let people ride their bike. That's what Senator Warnock is doing. Let Joe Biden ride his bike 'cause he's voted with him 96% of the time.

GRINGLAS: But Walker's stump speech usually veers from that message. The last rally that I covered, he spent way more time railing against transgender people in sports and the military than he did talking about inflation.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. How's that going over?

GRINGLAS: Well, let me introduce you to one voter I met earlier this fall, Cameron Llewellyn (ph). In November, he voted Republican for every race except for Senate. So I called him back last week. And he said he is 100% going back to the polls for Warnock.

CAMERON LLEWELLYN: My vote isn't bound by party alone. It does actually matter what you say because I'm an American first and sort of a Republican second.

GRINGLAS: I checked back in with another couple, independent voters who split their tickets. The husband will vote again for Warnock. The wife is not sure if she'll go back or not. But runoffs can be really unpredictable. The Warnock campaign says they'll knock more doors in this four-week runoff than the last four months of the general. Republicans say they've got 500 staffers on the ground. And all that highlights the priority here, turnout, getting supporters back to the polls and trying to convince voters who stayed home a month ago to vote by December 6.

MARTÍNEZ: WABE's Sam Gringlas. Sam, thanks.

GRINGLAS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.