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Georgia voters head back to the polls for the state's U.S. Senate runoff election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The seemingly endless campaign for U.S. Senate in Georgia is finally ending. Today voters make a final decision about whether to reelect Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock or send Republican Herschel Walker to Washington. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports from Atlanta on the last days of the runoff election.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: With three days left in one of the country's most consequential Senate races, Herschel Walker spent his Saturday at Atlanta's futuristic-looking football stadium.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: The No. 1 team in the country, the reigning national champions, the Georgia Bulldogs.

GRINGLAS: Walker hosted a tailgate before the SEC championship game. He's embraced his stature as one of the University of Georgia's most revered players. It's helped deflect a torrent of controversies, including allegations of domestic violence. Reporters have been barred for weeks within 20 feet of the candidate, including at this tailgate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sir, would you please leave? We actually...

GRINGLAS: This election has become almost as much about the biographies of the two candidates as the vastly different policy positions they support.

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EBENEZER BAPTIST CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing) Praise be the Lord. Praise God.

GRINGLAS: Warnock is senior pastor of the congregation Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once led. On Sunday, he carved out a few hours to preach from his pulpit in Atlanta.

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RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Pastor dropped by this morning to tell you to use your voice. I'm not going to even begin to try to tell you who to vote for. I don't care who it is. You're going to vote for somebody whose last name begins with a W.

GRINGLAS: The other W, Herschel Walker, also wove some prayer into his Sunday schedule. His rally on the lot of a Chevy dealership featured a lineup of evangelical leaders and also this hype video.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Boom.

HERSCHEL WALKER: I'm sick and tired of people putting this country down.

GRINGLAS: In the crowd is Paul Smith. He's mostly retired, but still teaches part time.

PAUL SMITH: And I brought me two copies of the 1980-'81 Sports Illustrated thinking he would just be nice to autograph that.

GRINGLAS: Smith says he's confident Walker will be a reliable GOP vote.

SMITH: Warnock has agreed with Biden 90, 95% of the time. We need someone to counter that.

GRINGLAS: On the stump, Walker's speeches are often light on policy. He also leans on his personal story and humorous anecdotes and often tries to evoke images of valiant patriotism. On Sunday, he told a favorite story about the defense of Fort McHenry and why afterward, the Star-Spangled Banner was still there.

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WALKER: Because you had so many people that believed in the liberties and freedoms that we have right now, that, as they were dying with their dead body, they laid it against that flagpole to stand it back up. That's what we need right now.

GRINGLAS: Warnock has also been telling a story about America in these final days. On Monday, he reminded a crowd at Georgia Tech how young people propelled the civil rights movement. Students who couldn't fit inside pressed their faces to the auditorium's glass windows.

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WARNOCK: We need folk who are not content with things as they are, who know that while we live in a great country, we can always make it greater.

SMITH: In the runoff, Warnock has appealed to Republican voters hesitant about Walker. But especially in the final days, he's also pushing to boost turnout among young and minority voters. Sophomore Alexis Jones has a seat in the front row for Warnock's speech.

ALEXIS JONES: He made history. Obviously, he's the first Black senator in Georgia, which means so much. And it - I was so proud in 2020, during my senior year, when he won.

GRINGLAS: She says this election will also make a statement about Georgia's future.

JONES: The stakes are high, I think, for the country as a whole. And for the state of Georgia, it would continue to send the message that young voices still do matter.

GRINGLAS: Jones cast her ballot on Friday. At this point, all that's left is to wait. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.