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GOP Sen. Tim Scott to deliver GOP response for Biden address to Congress

By Clare Foran, CNN

Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina will deliver the GOP response following President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress on April 28.

The decision will give Scott, the lone black Republican senator and the lead Republican negotiator on Congress’ policing reform efforts, a prominent national platform with which to speak to the country and counter Biden’s message.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy announced on Thursday that Scott had been chosen to give the speech.

“Senator Tim Scott is not just one of the strongest leaders in our Senate Republican Conference. He is one of the most inspiring and unifying leaders in our nation,” McConnell said in a statement.

Biden will address lawmakers in a joint session of Congress where he will deliver his first remarks to both chambers nearly 100 days after taking office.

Biden was formally invited to speak to Congress by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wrote in a letter earlier this month to the President that she was extending the invitation so he could “share your vision for addressing the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment.”

This story is breaking and will be updated.

CNN’s Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.

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Supreme Court ruling will make it easier to sentence juveniles to life sentence without parole

By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender in a 6-3 decision, rejecting arguments that such sentences should have additional limits.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned the decision for his conservative colleagues, holding that a sentencer will not have to make a separate finding that the juvenile offender was incapable of being rehabilitated.

The ruling will make it easier for those who committed their crime under the age of 18 to be sentenced to prison for life without parole.

It also highlights the impact of the court’s new conservative majority. Starting in 2005 when then-swing Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote an opinion barring the death penalty for juvenile offenders, the court had been putting limits on sentences for juvenile offenders. Thursday’s decision, with three of former President Donald Trump’s nominees in the majority, reverses that trend.

Thursday’s case concerned Brett Jones, who was charged with killing his grandfather in 2004 in Mississippi when Jones was 15 years old. The two men were engaged in an argument and Jones stabbed his grandfather eight times. Jones’ lawyers had argued that before imposing a sentence, a sentencer must make a separate finding, based on facts, that there is permanent incorrigibility.

But Kavanaugh wrote that the court had “unequivocally” stated that a “separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required before a sentencing of life-without parole.” He said under court precedents a juvenile offender could be sentenced to life without parole — but only if the sentence was not mandatory.

“In a case involving an individual who was under 18 when he or she committed a homicide, a State’s discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kavanaugh added that “any homicide” is a “horrific tragedy” and that determining the proper sentence “raises profound questions of morality and social policy.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for her liberal colleagues Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, penned a stinging dissent charging the majority with gutting recently decided cases without directly saying so.

“Time and again, this court has recognized that children are constitutionally different from adults for the purposes of sentencing,” Sotomayor wrote.

The court’s conclusion, she wrote, would come as a “shock” to the court’s recent holding that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence” for all but a few.

“A sentencer must actually make the judgment that the juvenile in question is one of those rare children for whom LWOP [Life without parole] is a constitutionally permissible sentence,” she said.

If a sentencing discretion “is all that is required, far too many juvenile offenders will be sentenced to die” in prison and that the sentences will “not fall equally,” Sotomayor wrote. She pointed specifically to the fact that 70% of all youths that receive such sentences are “children of color.”

In 2012 the court held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders violated the Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2010 it held that the Constitution prohibits life without parole for offenders who were under 18 and committed non homicide offenses.

CNN Supreme Court analyst and University of Texas Law School professor Steve Vladeck pointed to the change in the court’s makeup since the earlier cases.

“With two members of that majority replaced by two of the justices in today’s majority, the court now says that states don’t need any special reason to impose life without parole on juveniles; all that matters is that the judge has the option of not doing so,” Vladeck said.

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What could Congress actually accomplish on police reform?

Q&A: Zachary B. Wolf with Jessica Dean, CNN

The guilty verdicts for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd felt like an important moment, creating momentum to change the way police interact with Black Americans.

The specific nature of that progress, however, is very much yet to be determined, particularly on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans are actually working together to find a compromise piece of legislation.

What Matters turned to CNN’s Jessica Dean, who covers Congress, to get her front-row assessment of what’s been proposed, what a compromise could look like, what it would actually accomplish and whether any issue can get Democrats and Republicans to vote for the same thing.

Her emailed thoughts are below:

What police reform is being proposed on Capitol Hill?

WHAT MATTERS: Police are governed at the local level, but the killing of Black Americans by police officers is a national crisis. What exactly would the current legislative proposals do to address this problem?

DEAN: In short, lawmakers are still trying to figure out exactly what the final legislation would look like. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House back in March. That bill bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants and eliminates qualified immunity. It would also set up a national registry of police misconduct to stop officers from moving from place to place. And it would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local level. But in order to pass in the Senate, there will have to be changes made to this bill. Which gets us to our next question …

Why is there hope police reform could pass when so many other bills are blocked?

WHAT MATTERS: The House passed the George Floyd Act, but it would take 10 Republican senators to overcome a filibuster. Is there any indication 10 Republican senators could support a police reform bill?

DEAN: Yes, and here’s why. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the lead Senate Republican taking part in these talks, has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Scott also holds a lot of sway with his fellow Republican members on this issue. One source told me he’s been reaching out to other Republican senators and they have been “supportive.” McConnell told me “of course” he was supportive of Scott’s efforts. So, it’s possible.

Related: GOP senator floats compromise on policing legislation

What is “qualified immunity” and why is it the main sticking point?

WHAT MATTERS: A key issue dividing lawmakers is “qualified immunity.” What is it and is there any room for compromise?

DEAN: Qualified immunity is a legal defense used in civil cases that critics say shields officers from accountability and defenders argue protects officers’ ability to make quick decisions in dangerous situations. This issue is a key sticking point. Sen. Scott has proposed a compromise which would allow police departments or employers to be sued but not the individual officer. Rep. Karen Bass, who authored the House bill and is another key player in the discussions with Scott and the Senate, told me yesterday officers and departments should both be held accountable. So they’re still not on the same page there.

Would any of these federal proposals have stopped the violence we’ve seen recently?

WHAT MATTERS: Floyd was suffocated to death. Daunte Wright was shot. Would anything in these bills have been able to stop those deaths? If not, what do supporters say federal legislation would accomplish?

DEAN: Again we have to wait to see exactly what is in the final legislation. But Scott and Bass, along with Sen. Cory Booker, the lead Senate Democrat in these talks, all agree policing needs to be overhauled in this country. And they all say lives will be saved as a result. The specific elements might not address each of the instances of police violence we’ve seen, but they would certainly change policing in the US.

Aside from qualified immunity, the key areas in the House bill include:

  • Installing a national chokehold ban
  • Installing a national no-knock warrants ban
  • Banning racial and religious profiling
  • Creating a national database of police misconduct
  • Grants for police training
  • Finally implementing anti-lynching legislation

What could convince Republicans to vote for this?

WHAT MATTERS: Republicans signed on to sentencing reform under pressure from former President Donald Trump. What pressure could be applied on them today?

DEAN: A number of Senate Republicans have said they’re open to supporting legislation overhauling policing. There is no question the events of the past year, and even the past few weeks and months, have created a sense of urgency which is not something we see that often in the Senate. It’s also not an election year so people may be willing to truly negotiate. It all comes down to what Scott, Booker and Bass hammer out. What is a palatable compromise to all parties that can get 60 votes?

This is a story that seems to be repeating itself, no?

WHAT MATTERS: The story is similar on a number of issues — climate change, infrastructure, immigration, gun control, voting rights. Does it seem right now like there could be breakthroughs on any of these?

DEAN: We wrote a story on this very question because at this point to get almost any of that done, you need 60 votes in the Senate, which demands bipartisan support. And it’s no secret that’s a tall order right now.

Democrats can use reconciliation to pass infrastructure without any Republican support and that may be the route they take. But on things like gun control or voting rights, there is going to have to be compromise to get to 60, which means everyone is giving up something to get a deal done. It’s a very steep uphill climb.

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Federal officials weigh extending mask mandate for mass transportation

By Gregory Wallace

Federal officials are currently considering whether to renew the transportation mask requirement that expires next month, an official familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The early February order from the Transportation Security Administration applies to airplanes, buses, trains and ferries, and transportation hubs like airports.

The agency is currently consulting with health experts, said the official, who declined to predict whether the order will be renewed or allowed to expire as scheduled on May 11.

TSA has received nearly 2,000 reports alleging violations from across the multiple modes of transportation, the official said. The agency disclosed in mid-February that it had received “fewer than 1,000” reports alleging non-compliance.

The agency has also reached the point of sending citations to alleged violators, the official said. The official could not say how many have been issued. There are multiple investigatory and review steps before a citation is ultimately issued.

Voices within the aviation industry that had pushed both the Biden and Trump administrations for such an order have called for it to be renewed. They said the Biden administration’s order in February added teeth and consistency to a patchwork of local orders that applied to buildings like airports, and company policies requiring masks on airplanes and other vehicles.

“We do think it should maintain the mask mandate,” Nick Calio, who leads the industry association Airlines for America, said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “It has helped considerably on airplanes and in airports.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the government can support her members enforcing the order by “making it very clear to the public” that masks remain a requirement.

Some governors have rescinded orders or allowed mask requirements in their states to expire. President Joe Biden has taken a different approach: Soon after taking office in January, he directed the TSA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Transportation Department, and other agencies to require masking.

At the Wednesday hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who has been photographed not properly wearing a mask on aircraft, said passengers should do so “until the government changes the requirement.”

“It does seem, though, sometime in the future that this thing needs to end,” Wicker added.

Dr. Leonard Marcus, who has studied coronavirus transmission on airplanes at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Wicker that the circulation of variants makes it difficult to say how long masks will be needed in enclosed spaces.

“For sure, when we’re on the plane, when we’re going through the airport buildings, when we’re indoors, let’s keep those masks on,” Marcus said. “We want to make this crisis end as soon as possible.”

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READ: Senate Republicans’ infrastructure plan

By CNN

Republican senators unveiled a framework for their infrastructure proposal, which totals just under $600 billion. It includes money directed at traditional infrastructure including roads, bridges, ports and broadband. The plan is far narrower than President Joe Biden’s roughly $2 trillion proposal.

Read the proposal here: cnn.com/2021/04/22/politics/gop-infrastructure-plan/index.html

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Nominees for USPS Board of Governors say they haven’t been pressured about DeJoy

By Liz Stark

President Joe Biden’s trio of US Postal Service Board of Governors nominees said Thursday they have not made any commitments or been pressured about the potential firing of embattled Trump-era Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

The scrutiny comes as scores of Democratic lawmakers have sent letters to DeJoy and President Joe Biden in recent weeks, raising concerns about the postmaster general’s leadership and urging the President to take action amid complaints over delivery delays.

During Thursday’s nomination hearing, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman said he had previously asked all three of Biden’s nominees — Anton Hajjar, Amber McReynolds and Ron Stroman — whether they had received any outside pressure about firing the current postmaster general.

“They all told me they had not made any commitments and they had not been pressured,” Portman said before asking if that was accurate. All three could then be heard saying “yes” off-camera.

The President cannot remove the postmaster general. Only the Postal Service Board of Governors — which is comprised of members nominated by the President and confirmed in the Senate — has the power to do so.

Later, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, followed up by asking if anyone in the nomination process had discussed DeJoy’s performance, to which each nominee replied, “No, senator.”

Biden announced the three nominees in late February to fill most of the vacancies on the USPS Board of Governors, fulfilling a promise that the administration would make the board and the agency a priority in the early days of his presidency.

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READ: Senate Republicans’ infrastructure plan

Republican senators unveiled a framework for their infrastructure proposal, which totals just under $600 billion. It includes money directed at traditional infrastructure including roads, bridges, ports and broadband. The plan is far narrower than President Joe Biden’s roughly $2 trillion proposal.

Read the proposal:

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Jim Clyburn says he was fined for avoiding metal detectors off the House floor

By Annie Grayer and Manu Raju, CNN

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told CNN that he was fined for violating the procedure of going through the metal detectors installed off the House floor, the first Democrat to receive such a fine.

“Yeah,” Clyburn of South Carolina told CNN on Thursday when asked to confirm that he had been fined. When asked by CNN what happened, Clyburn said, “I have no idea.” He said he planned to appeal the infraction.

“It’s just somebody on the other side trying to cause mischief,” Clyburn added without providing any evidence.

All members who avoid going through the metal detectors are fined $5,000 for their first offense and $10,000 for their second, a rule Clyburn supported that was instituted after the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. These fines are deducted directly from members’ salaries by the chief administrative officer.

Politico first reported that an incident against Clyburn’s misuse of the metal detectors had been reported.

A source familiar with the matter told CNN on Tuesday that Clyburn was wanded down before entering the House floor to vote through an entrance that faces the Capitol Rotunda. According to the source, once Clyburn voted, he exited the House floor through a different door to use the bathroom located off the House Speaker’s lobby. Upon returning from the bathroom, Clyburn walked toward his Capitol Police detail who were speaking with the officer stationed at the magnetometer by the floor entrance off the speaker’s lobby. Clyburn then went around the metal detector with his security detail to return to the House floor, the source confirmed.

The source added that Clyburn did not refuse any orders upon returning to the floor and that he had gone through security less than 10 minutes before he left and returned through the Speaker’s lobby.

CNN has reached out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the Committee on House Administration and the House Sergeant at Arms to confirm the incident.

Since the fine requiring members to complete security screening prior to entering the House floor was created, three Republicans have been fined and many have complained about the new rule.

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Senate overwhelmingly passes anti-Asian hate crimes bill

By Alex Rogers, CNN

The Senate passed with a wide bipartisan majority Thursday a bill denouncing discrimination against Asian communities in the United States, and creating a new position at the Justice Department to expedite reviews of potential Covid-19-related hate crimes.

The vote was 94-1. The lone vote in opposition was from Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.

The bill would also direct the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to issue guidance raising awareness of hate crimes during the pandemic, and work with agencies to establish online reporting of them. It now goes to the House before being signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that the bill is “proof” that “the Senate can work to solve important issues,” and would tell bigots “we’re going after you.”

The bill, sponsored by New York Democratic Rep. Grace Meng and Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, gained momentum after the shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta on March 16 drew even more attention to the rise of anti-Asian violence over the past year.

Some Republicans were initially skeptical about the legislation known as the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act but Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins and others teamed up with Hirono to strike an agreement broadening its support.

Hirono said Thursday that the bill’s passage “sends a clear and unmistakable message of solidarity” to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Collins said it “affirms our commitment to stand with” them against hate crimes.

Last week, Hawley indicated his opposition to the bill, saying it was too broad and “open-ended” since it mandates “all this data collection in expansive categories that the federal government will collect and maintain.”

“That concerns me,” Hawley said.

Hirono and other Democrats have also pressured Biden to include more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in top roles. Biden has since named Erika Moritsugu, a former official at the National Partnership for Women & Families and counsel to Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, as a liaison to the AAPI community.

Of the 23 Cabinet-level positions requiring Senate consideration, Biden nominated two Asian Americans: Katherine Tai for trade representative and Neera Tanden for Office of Management and Budget director. Tai, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, was confirmed as the first woman of color to be the top US trade negotiator.

But Tanden’s nomination failed after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, announced his opposition due to her long string of comments attacking Republicans.

This story and headline have been updated to reflect additional developments.

CNN’s Ted Barrett and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.

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With Trump’s backing, Walker freezes Senate GOP field in Georgia

By Alex Rogers and Manu Raju, CNN

Former President Donald Trump’s backing of football great Herschel Walker to run for the Georgia Senate seat has been enough to effectively freeze the GOP field in place — even though some Republicans privately worry the political neophyte might fizzle against Sen. Raphael Warnock in a high-stakes general election.

Warnock, who is running for a full six-year term next year after narrowly winning his seat in a special election in January, is a top target for Republicans. And with the backing of Trump and his closest allies, who believe that Walker is uniquely able to unite a party torn apart by their 2020 losses, prospective Republican candidates are signaling they are willing to sit out until the legendary athlete makes a decision.

But the prospect that Walker could have the field to himself is causing anxiety among some Republicans in Georgia and Washington, who privately are uncertain whether the first-time candidate and Texas resident could handle the enormous challenges ahead. And they’re worried that Trump is propping up a candidate simply because he has been a loyal friend, rather than assessing the former NFL running back’s electoral viability in a pivotal battleground that could again determine the next Senate majority.

Trump’s involvement in the Georgia primary underscores both his enduring influence among the conservative base and concerns among senior Republicans that his meddling in the 2022 midterms could turn off more moderate voters whose support the GOP needs to win back power on Capitol Hill.

In a brief phone call on Wednesday, Walker didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to announce.

“Right now, (I’m) just going through the process and thinking about it,” Walker told CNN. “Not really talking a lot about it.”

And he insisted he wasn’t doing Trump’s bidding.

“This got nothing to do with President Trump,” Walker said. “With me, I’m about this country right now.”

Privately, some Republicans are nervous that Walker’s indecision has put the brakes on the GOP effort to take down Warnock, who is methodically stocking up a massive warchest in anticipation for another bruising campaign. And it’s anyone’s guess what kind of candidate Walker might turn out to be.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety, down here about, like, what his campaign will actually look like,” said a Georgia Republican operative.

Publicly, top Republicans are uncertain what to make of Walker either.

Asked about Walker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN: “Well, I’ve met him.”

McConnell added: “I have no idea who we’re going to come up with down there. … I think it’s wide open.”

Trump’s ties to Walker stretch back years

In March, Trump publicly pushed Walker to run for the seat that could determine the future control of the Senate.

Their relationship goes back to 1984, when Trump — the then-owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals — gave the former Georgia Bulldogs running back a contract extension.

They stayed in touch; Donald Trump Jr. recounts in his book “Triggered” that he went to Disney World when he was six with Walker’s family, and Walker would visit the Trumps at their house in Greenwich, Connecticut. Walker later appeared on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” with Trump and encouraged his 2016 and 2020 presidential bids. And in December, Walker tweeted a video supporting Trump’s effort to overturn his loss and subvert the will of the electorate. Trump responded, “Herschel is speaking the truth!”

Walker has had several conversations with Trump and his team, consulting with the former President’s aides about who to bring on board, how to set up a campaign and what kind of message he should have prepared to respond to anticipated attacks out of the gate, according to a person close to Trump.

Walker has also spoken with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and close Trump allies as well, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said the former Heisman Trophy winner would be an “outstanding candidate.”

“We need to broaden the party, right?” Graham said of Walker, an African American. “It’d be great to have somebody of his stature running as a conservative.”

As Walker deliberates, Republicans are eager to find their nominee. Two candidates — Kelvin King, a construction firm owner, Air Force veteran and prominent Black Trump supporter, and Latham Saddler, a banking executive and Navy SEAL — have already announced their campaigns. The two top candidates in 2020 — former Sen. Kelly Loeffler and former Rep. Doug Collins — are also considering running again. Warnock and Loeffler finished in the top two last fall, advancing to a January runoff where Warnock narrowly prevailed.

Potential candidates wait for Walker to make a decision

Collins is nearing a decision, according to people familiar with his thinking, and has become increasingly convinced that there are few Republicans who can avoid a bruising primary and navigate the general election.

Others are looking at the race too.

Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter told CNN that he is encouraging Walker to run, calling him “a fighter,” but added that if “Hershel doesn’t run, then I can run.”

Carter has reached out to Ward Baker, a well-known GOP political operative, to be a senior adviser on his Senate campaign if he does run, according to multiple sources. Baker confirmed the account to CNN.

“He’s doing his due diligence and he is praying about it,” Carter said of Walker. “He’s a very religious person, a deep believer. So, you know, he’ll make the right decision.”

There’s little appetite for any Republican candidate to repeat 2020, when the Collins-Loeffler clash forced Loeffler to the right and weakened her in the runoff election.

Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN that he’s discussed the last cycle with Collins, when the NRSC — under a different staff and leadership — torched Collins’ campaign in order to secure the primary for the incumbent Loeffler, who was appointed to her position by Gov. Brian Kemp. In March, the Republican consulting firm OnMessage, which counts Scott among its top clients but is not affiliated with any Georgia Senate candidate, released a poll showing Collins in the strongest position in the GOP primary.

“We’re not going to get involved in open primaries,” Scott said he told Collins.

While Georgia was long a Republican stronghold, the state’s changing demographics and voter registration drives led by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams have made Democrats much more competitive. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Trump there, and Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff beat Loeffler and GOP Sen. David Perdue, respectively, becoming the first Democrats elected to the Senate from Georgia since 2000. Warnock’s campaign recently announced he raised nearly $6 million in the first three months of the year.

When asked about Walker, Warnock told CNN: “I’m prepared to defeat whoever they put up.”

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that next year’s Georgia race is going to be “hotly contested.”

“You can see, it’s pretty obvious from his fundraising, the campaign hasn’t skipped a beat,” Peters said of Warnock.

Even some Georgia Republicans privately agree.

“People are starting to get really nervous that Warnock is building this gigantic war chest, and we don’t even have a substantive candidate,” said another Georgia Republican operative.

Some say that Walker looks good on paper. He’s a legendary University of Georgia running back and a Black Republican who would run with the support of Trump.

Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer and former US ambassador to Luxembourg in the Trump administration, said that Walker “transcends” the divisions within the Georgia Republican Party, which could “complicate the political landscape for any of the more traditional candidates,” and that he could focus the race on the Democratic control of Washington.

“He is a candidate that Trump Republicans, non-Trump Republicans, Independents, traditional Democrats, and even many partisan Democrats can agree with,” said Evans. “It is why so many Georgia voters of all persuasions have taken to quoting the famous Larry Munson who was often heard to shout, ‘Run, Herschel, run.'”

Gabby Orr and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.