Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young rode his scooter alongside Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, Martin Luther King III and a fervent crowd of marchers on a recent Sunday through a southwest Atlanta neighborhood. The group stopped at an early polling location to vote, forming a line with some waiting as long as one hour to cast their ballots.
At the age of 90, Young says he is selective about public appearances but felt the “Souls to the Polls” event was one where he could motivate Black voters in Tuesday’s hotly contested US Senate runoff between Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker – a historic matchup between two Black men.
Community leaders and political observers say the Black vote has consistently played a pivotal role in high-stakes races for Democrats, including in 2021, when Warnock defeated then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff. Black voters likely to cast a ballot are near unanimous in their support for the Democrat (96% Warnock to 3% Walker), according to a CNN poll released last week that showed Warnock with a narrow lead.
A second runoff victory for Warnock could once again hinge on Black voter turnout in a consequential race. If Warnock wins, it would give Democrats a clean Senate majority – one that doesn’t rely on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote and allows Majority Leader Chuck Schumer more control of key committees and some slack in potentially divisive judicial and administrative confirmation fights.
Voting, Young said, is the “path to prosperity” for the Black community. He noted that Atlanta’s mass transit system and economic growth have been made possible by voters.
“Where we have voted we have prospered,” Young said.
The rally led by Young, King and Warnock seems to have set the tone for many Black voters in Georgia. Early voting surged across the state last week with long lines reported across the greater Atlanta area. As of Sunday, more than 1.85 million votes had already been cast, with Black voters accounting for nearly 32% of the turnout, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The early voting period, which was significantly condensed from 2021, ended on Friday.
Billy Honor, director of organizing for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said the Black turnout so far looks promising for Democrats.
“When we get Black voter turnout in any election statewide that’s between 31 and 33%, that’s usually good for Democrats,” Honor said. “If it’s between 27 and 30%, that’s usually good for Republicans.”
Honor added: “This has an impact on elections because we know that if you’re a Democratic candidate, the coalition you have to put together is a certain amount of college-educated White folks, a certain amount of women overall, as many young people as you can get to turn out – and Black voters. That’s the coalition. (Former president) Barack Obama was able to smash that coalition in 2008 in ways we hadn’t seen.”
Young said he believes that Black voters are more likely to show up for runoff elections, which historically have lower turnout than general elections, when the candidate is likeable and relatable.
Warnock is a beloved figure in Atlanta’s Black community who pastored the church once led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up in public housing and relied on student loans to get through college.
Young said Warnock’s story is inspiring.
“He is an exciting personality, he’s a great preacher,” Young said. “He speaks from his heart and he speaks about how he and his family have come up in the deep South and developed a wonderful life.”
Young said some Black voters may also be voting against Walker, who has made a series of public gaffes, has no political experience and has a history of accusations of violent and threatening behavior.
Last week’s CNN poll showed that Walker faces widespread questions about his honesty and suffers from a negative favorability rating, while nearly half of those who back him say their vote is more about opposition to Warnock than support for Walker.
Views of Warnock tilt narrowly positive, with 50% of likely voters holding a favorable opinion, 45% unfavorable, while far more likely Georgia voters have a negative view of Walker (52%) than a positive one (39%).
Still, Walker is famous as a Heisman Trophy-winning football star from the University of Georgia. And among the majority of likely voters in the CNN poll who said issues are a more important factor to their vote than character or integrity, 64% favor Walker.
He campaigned on Sunday with, among others, GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of just three Black senators currently serving in the chamber. Scott tried to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden – who, like former President Donald Trump, has steered clear of the Peach State – and reminded voters in Loganville of the GOP’s losses in the 2021 runoffs.
At the event, which began with prayers in Creole, Spanish and Swahili from speakers with Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Walker encouraged getting out to vote more than he typically does.
“If you don’t have a friend, make a friend and get them out to vote,” Walker said.
A ‘civic duty’
Some Black voters said they were excited to show up last week and cast their early votes in the runoff race.
Travie Leslie said she feels it is her “civic duty” to vote after all the work civil rights leaders in Atlanta did to ensure Black people had the right to vote. Leslie she does not mind standing in line or voting in multiple elections to ensure that a quality candidate gets in office.
“I will come 12 times if I must and I encourage other people to do the same thing,” Leslie said Thursday while at the Metropolitan Library polling location in Atlanta. “Just stay dedicated to this because it truly is the best time to be a part of the decision making particularly for Georgia.”
Martin Luther King III credited grassroots organizations for registering more Black and brown voters since 2020, when Biden carried the state, and mobilizing Georgians to participate in elections.
Their work has led to the long lines of voters in midterm and runoff races, King said.
King said he believes Warnock also appeals to Black voters in a way that Walker does not.
“Rev. Warnock distinguishes himself quite well,” King said. “He stayed above the fray and defined what he has done.”
The Black vote, he said, is likely to make a difference in which candidate wins the runoff.
“Black voters, if we come out in massive numbers, then I believe that on December 6 we (Democrats) are going to have a massive victory,” King said.
CNN’s Eva McKend and Dianne Gallagher contributed to this report.