ATLANTA — In the final day before Georgia’s Senate runoff, Senator Raphael Warnock pleaded with supporters to tune out pundits predicting his victory and instead vote “like it’s an emergency” in a bitterly contested race that is closing out the midterm election cycle.
His Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, the former football star recruited into the race by former President Donald J. Trump, made a circuit of north Georgia counties he won easily a month ago, urging Republicans who have avoided early voting to hit the polls Tuesday. “Got to get out the vote,” he said.
The two men are vying in an election with major symbolic as well as practical ramifications. A Warnock victory would deliver Democrats a 51st vote in the Senate, where the party has for the past two years relied on Vice President Kamala Harris to break 50-50 ties. If Mr. Walker wins, Republicans would maintain joint control of Senate committees and two centrist Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, would maintain effective veto power over all legislation in the chamber.
But the broader political stakes are just as significant. Democrats believe a victory would deliver proof they have transformed Georgia into an indisputable battleground, heralding a new era of Sun Belt politics and reshaping their strategies for winning the White House. A Walker victory, after his deeply troubled campaign and the G.O.P.’s clean sweep in statewide races this year, would reassert Republican dominance in the state.
And for Mr. Trump, who three weeks ago began his third presidential campaign, Tuesday’s contest represents his last chance to claim victory in a battleground for one of his closest political acolytes.
More than $380 million has been spent on the race, the most of any election this year, according to OpenSecrets, a group that tracks money in politics. The runoff was prompted when neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote in last month’s general election.
The number of early votes cast has topped 1.89 million, about half the turnout on Nov. 8. Both campaigns believe that group skews heavily Democratic. Republicans involved and allied with Mr. Walker acknowledged that tilt left the candidate needing to win about 60 percent of the in-person vote Tuesday to catch up. He won 56 percent of the Election Day vote in November, according to data from the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
“There is still a path for Herschel Walker to win this race — he still could win,” Mr. Warnock told reporters after speaking to supporters at Georgia Tech on Monday. “We had a massive lead during the general. And so we know that there are differences in how people show up when they vote in this state. And so if there’s anything I’m worried about is that people will think that we don’t need their voice. We do.”
What to Know About the Georgia Senate Runoff
In some ways, Mr. Walker was running a final-day get-out-the-vote campaign ripped from a generation past, when the vast majority of votes were still cast in person on Election Day. Mr. Warnock — who also won a runoff election two years ago — had adjusted to modern voting patterns and Georgia’s voting rules, which allowed for a week of early voting.
At Mr. Warnock’s recent events, it was difficult for him to find supporters who are waiting until Tuesday to vote. When asked who had voted early, nearly every hand went up at stops at colleges and Black churches the last two days.
“I’ve been preaching long enough to know that I am preaching to the choir,” Mr. Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said on Sunday at a Black church in Athens.
On Monday, when a food delivery app driver dropped off sandwiches for the Warnock campaign at its event at Georgia Tech, a pair of energetic volunteers pressed him about whether he had voted already. (He hadn’t, and said he wasn’t sure he would on Tuesday.)
“This final push is all about building enthusiasm and momentum into Election Day,” Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, a close Warnock ally who has appeared at many of his campaign stops, said during an interview Monday. “We want to mobilize as much energy as possible to get out the vote to reach folks who might not otherwise hear from campaigns.”
In November, Mr. Warnock finished 37,700 votes ahead of Mr. Walker out of nearly four million cast. Mr. Warnock consolidated Democratic voters, while Mr. Walker struggled to rally his party behind him.
At Mr. Walker’s final rally on Monday, at a gun range in Kennesaw, a conservative exurb about 45 minutes from Atlanta, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina spoke to a crowd of about 100 supporters. She encouraged them to turn out to vote and get others to the polls.
“There is no red wave. There’s either turnout or not,” she said, adding that she asked Mr. Walker to fill up his campaign bus with voters to take them to polling places.
“We can show America that we’re about to right the ship.”
In the runoff, Black voters, a slice of the electorate that has overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Walker’s bid, make up about 32 percent of early voters, a figure six percentage points higher than in the November election.
“I come from a family where we’ve all done early voting,” said Jordan Artis, a 21-year-old international affairs student at Georgia Tech who said she waited 80 minutes to vote last week and came to see Mr. Warnock on Monday. Her close friends, Ms. Artis said, have already voted too.
While his advisers and allies quietly lowered expectations, Mr. Walker on Monday said he was feeling “pretty good” as he shook hands and took photos with voters at a popular diner in Flowery Branch, an Atlanta exurb in a county where he took 71 percent of the Nov. 8 vote.
He later delivered unusually short remarks — free of his signature long tangents — to about 75 supporters at a vineyard in Gilmer County, another Republican stronghold.
“Tomorrow is a big day,” he said, asking the group who had voted. Two-thirds of the crowd raised their hands. “This is what we’ve got to do — we’ve got to vote.”
Mr. Walker’s supporters on Monday brushed off worries that poor weather — rain is in the Tuesday forecast for the Atlanta area and North Georgia — or low energy would diminish Election Day turnout.
More on the Georgia Senate Runoff
- How Walker Could Win: Despite the steady stream of tough headlines for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate, he could prevail. Here’s how.
- Warnock’s Record: An electric car plant outside Savannah could be the central achievement for Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. But Republicans aren’t giving him credit.
- Insulin Prices: The issue is nowhere near as contentious as just about everything else raised in the race. But in a state with a high diabetes rate, it has proved a resonant topic.
“I’m feeling very encouraged. I think he’s got this,” said Judy Shinall, 77, a Walker supporter from Ackworth. Ms. Shinall acknowledged the party has fallen short at clutch time, most recently two years ago when Mr. Warnock won a runoff for a special election. “Republicans sometimes, you know, won’t get out there. And this is crucial. Tomorrow is it,” she said.
Mr. Walker was wrapping up a campaign that appears to have failed to consolidate the disparate wings of his party. He ran hard toward the party’s Trump-aligned base, repelling moderate elements of the coalition that propelled Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, to victory.
Mr. Walker was pummeled by damaging headlines throughout the campaign, including accusations from women he has dated and been married to that he was physically abusive. Two other former girlfriends said he urged them to have abortions, although he ran as an abortion opponent. (Mr. Walker denied the claims.) He also faced questions about his residency, after living in Texas for decades before moving back to Georgia when he began this campaign.
Mr. Kemp kept some distance from Mr. Walker during the general election. But in the runoff, he turned over his political operation to help, recorded a television ad and appeared at one campaign event alongside Mr. Walker.
Other Republicans never got onboard. In recent days, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan of Georgia, who did not seek re-election this year after repeatedly condemning Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election, has done a media tour explaining why he stood in an early-voting line for an hour but then declined to vote for Mr. Walker.
“I think Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history,” Mr. Duncan told CBS News in an interview broadcast Tuesday.
The runoff is taking place under new voting rules written by Georgia’s Republican state legislators and signed into law by Mr. Kemp. After the victories by Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff in January 2021, Georgia law now forbids new voter registration between the general election and the runoff.
Republicans also cut in half the period of time between the two contests, limited the early-voting period and made voting by mail more difficult, among other restrictions on mail voting and drop boxes.
Some Republican voters expressed confusion about the runoff rules.
David Mathews, 74, a retired manager at a petroleum company who was having breakfast with his fiancé and a friend at the Flowery Branch diner, where Mr. Walker began his Monday campaign swing, said he did not realize that his polling location had been open for early voting, which ended on Friday.
“They didn’t have the signs out,” he said, before digging into biscuits and gravy with bacon. Mr. Mathews said he planned to cast his ballot Tuesday for Mr. Walker.
Mr. Warnock’s campaign and his allies spent millions pushing supporters back to the polls. “One more time, Georgia,” screamed his ads on billboards and cellphones that urged supporters to vote early for him. By the campaign’s final hours, he acknowledged that his supporters might be worn out.
“I know you might be tired,” he said at a Black church on Sunday night in Athens. “I get tired, too.”
Reid J. Epstein reported from Atlanta and Athens, Jazmine Ulloa from Flowery Branch, and Maya King from Ellijay.