(NewsNation) — As Georgia’s voters prepare to go to the polls and vote in a pivotal Senate race, faith continues to play an outsized role. Georgia voters are among the most religious in the country with nearly 80% of adults in the state identifying as Christians, according to Pew Research.
Republican candidate Herschel Walker and incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock have both discussed their Christian faith on the campaign trail. The sitting senator is himself a minister, serving as a pastor at the renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Walker regularly describes himself as a man of faith and credits God for helping him overcome prior struggles with mental health.
Despite their religious overlap, experts say the two candidates are courting different voting blocs.
“Warnock’s the ideal candidate for a Black Protestant to vote for because he’s moderate but he knows how to speak the language of religion,” said Ryan Burge, a political scientist who specializes in religion at Eastern Illinois University.
On the other side, Walker has gained support from white evangelical voters, most of whom tend to vote Republican, Burge said.
Exit polling from the 2020 election found white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported former President Donald Trump (76%) compared to now-President Joe Biden (24%).
It’s unclear what impact, if any, recent accusations that Walker paid for a woman’s abortion will have on his popularity, particularly among his evangelical base who are more likely to support restrictions on abortion.
Burge suspects the backlash will be minimal.
“Republicans have delivered the goods for evangelicals over the last five years and I don’t see any reason why they would want to change that,” he said.
Debbie Dooley, a Georgia-based conservative grassroots activist who was raised by a Baptist preacher, said she considers herself a pro-life Christian. She pointed to Warnock’s reticence to endorse legal limits on abortion as one position that troubled her.
But she also said that other issues are more motivating for her this election. “My main issue is the economy and securing our borders,” she noted, adding that she recently learned of a homeless camp of veterans in Dekalb County.
Warnock has received criticism after reporting from the Washington Free Beacon — a conservative news outlet — revealed that an apartment building, which is majority-owned by the Ebenezer Baptist Church, had filed a dozen eviction lawsuits against residents during the coronavirus pandemic.
“If someone serves their country, they should not be homeless and our nation should be ashamed at the way we treat our veterans,” she said.
Faith does, however, play a role in how she thinks about Walker’s past violence. He has written and spoken about past struggles with mental illness and an anti-Walker Super PAC has been running an ad featuring an interview with his ex-wife where she explains he once held a gun to her head.
“The Bible says, when Jesus knelt down, and they were about to stone a woman, he who was without sin, cast the first stone. Everybody makes mistakes in their lives. There’s only one person that’s lived on this Earth that (was) sinless, and that’s Jesus Christ….the Bible teaches about redemption. It teaches about asking for forgiveness,” she said.
In a midterm election where voter turnout tends to be significantly lower than general elections, Burge thinks that the recent abortion allegations against Walker could inspire those who might have otherwise stayed home to come out for Warnock.
There is evidence to suggest the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has been an animating force for many voters, particularly those on the left.
Recent polling shows Georgia Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say abortion is an urgent issue facing the state.
A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found only 9% of likely voters in Georgia believe abortion should be illegal in all cases. That could signal trouble for Walker, who has advocated for a national abortion ban with no exceptions, including for rape or incest.
Warnock’s stance on abortion has been more difficult to pin down. He describes himself as a “pro-choice pastor” and criticized the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, calling it “a departure from our American ideals.”
When asked recently whether he’d support a federal bill codifying the previous Supreme Court standard, Warnock said, “I think that we’ve got to explore all options to protect this core constitutional principle.”
Bishop O.C. Allen, III is the founder and senior pastor at The Vision Church of Atlanta. He’s had a personal relationship with Warnock that began years before he entered politics. But Allen credits his Christian faith as guiding his vote.
“My own theological perspective and faith really have always informed…my politics. But I don’t think that is unique to me,” he said. “I also don’t think it’s unique to the South. I think it’s sort of the age-old American way that religion and faith play a deep role in not only how people perceive their own personal and national politics but religion and faith is also used to form and to shape public opinion and policy.”
He pointed to the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew as helping inspire his voting for Democrats. “When I was an immigrant, did you welcome me in, you know? When I was thirsty, did you make sure the water was clean?” he said, arguing that Warnock and the Democrats are more focused on treating people equally, including the LGBTQ community he belongs to.
A poll from The Hill/Emerson College released Tuesday shows Warnock with a slight two-point lead over Walker. That gap marks a four-point swing toward Warnock since August.
Warnock and Walker are set to debate in Savannah on Friday, Oct. 14. You can watch the full debate on NewsNation from 7-8 P.M. ET.