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Friday, January 27, 2023

5 Things to Watch in Georgia’s Senate Runoff

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Finally, the last round of balloting for this calendar year is about to end. Ultimately, it may tell us more about the Republican Party’s threshold for self-inflicted pain than what Washington may—or may not—accomplish in the next two years.

Republican nominee Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner from his days at the University of Georgia and later an NFL star, is battling incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in one of the tightest races seen in quite some time. Warnock narrowly ran ahead of Walker during the first round of voting back in November. But the 81,000 votes collected by a Libertarian meant that Warnock fell short of the 50% threshold needed to win outright. The roughly 36,000-vote gap between Warnock and Walker forced today’s two-way runoff.
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Casting a shadow over the whole day was former President Donald Trump, who picked Walker as his candidate for the hotly contested Georgia race even though the football icon didn’t even live in the state. (He still may not, tax filings suggest.) Establishment Republicans couldn’t derail the nomination, so they stood back to see just how much torque the Trump Train could summon even when it’s parked in the station.

Voting started at 7 a.m., and early voting, compressed into a single week, showed record turnout. As of Friday, the last day for early voting, the total number of people who had cast ballots at in-person sites or via mail had topped 1.8 million people. (Put another way: more than a quarter of Georgia’s active voters had already cast their ballots.) Still, Walker started at a disadvantage, given he ran behind Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s re-election bid last month by more than 200,000 votes—and the more-popular Kemp is not on the ballot today. Warnock has the clear advantage.

As we wait for the results, here are five things to watch coming out of Georgia.

Will This Race Change How the Parties Vet Candidates?

The short answer is a qualified maybe. Republicans at first thought they might have been able to mold Walker to their liking. After all, he was a popular figure who was a first-time candidate. Voters would tolerate a fumble in politics, not on the football field. His authenticity was seen as an advantage, his rawness an asset.

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And then the stories started coming out. About allegations of violence against his partners. About abortions allegedly pushed and funded. About absentee fatherhood—from his own son. It was painful to watch from afar, and national Republicans sought to quietly figure out just how much worse it could get. Ultimately, his discursive comments on vampires and werewolves may have actually been more helpful than not—and that says a whole lot about this race’s tone.

Still, Republicans didn’t stop spending, even as they lost hope. Through the final reporting period, a group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had spent at least $54 million—with more than $15 million of that coming since Election Day. That kept Walker competitive with Warnock, who enjoyed more than $52 million in outside spending—with more than $14 million coming since Election Day. Given Warnock’s fundraising advantage, that put the cash ledger clearly in Democrats’ favor.

Wait, This Cost How Much?

A record for the cycle. We know that much for sure.

So far, spending for the general election from candidates and outside groups reached more than $380 million with a week to go, according to spending reports.

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Still, the price tag is a pittance of what went through campaigns and their allies two years ago when the control of the Senate hung in the balance and the runoff window lasted a full month longer. Then, the race between then-incumbent Sen. David Perdue and challenger Jon Ossoff climbled to almost $514 million.

That doesn’t mean this one was done on the cheap. Warnock was the top fundraiser of any Senate candidate this election cycle, topping at least $150 million. He was heading toward its final days with a three-to-one fundraising and cash-on-hand advantage.

Herschel Walker Campaigns In Georgia Ahead Of Runoff Senate Election
Alex Wong—Getty ImagesRepublican Herschel Walker at a campaign rally on Dec. 4, 2022, in Loganville, GA.

If Walker Loses, Will Trump Bear Any Responsibility?

Trump remains his party’s frontrunner for renomination in 2024. His voice is the loudest, his fundraising potential unmatched, his capacity for revenge unimaginable. And Trump made Walker his guy in Georgia, when many Republicans thought that was a bad idea.

Still, by the time the runoff arrived, Trump had gotten the message loud and clear: he may have been able to help Walker win the GOP nomination—but apparently not anyone else in Georgia’s primary—but he did more to rile up the Democratic base than his own. Advisers persuaded Trump that his continued active participation in the contest after Election Day might be counter-productive, and the ex-President cooled it. He didn’t rally in person, denying Trump one of his favorite activities.

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National Republicans have been careful in handling their criticism of Trump for elevating an untested candidate to the race. Elsewhere, Trump’s picks in Arizona and Pennsylvania gave Democrats an easier path to wins than expected, and in Georgia, it could cost Republicans an obvious pick-up opportunity. Still, with Trump remaining in the mix, many decided it wasn’t worth poking the angriest bear in politics, especially given what’s actually at stake.

This Won’t Actually Change the Math in Congress, Right?

Yes, and no. Back in November, a majority of voters (54%) told exit polls that the balance of power in the Senate was the primary factor in their ballot. But that’s not at stake today. That’s a particular problem for Republicans given that more of Walker’s supporters said Senate control was their motivator than Warnock’s voters.

By flipping a Republican-held seat in Pennsylvania last month, Democrats have secured 50 seats. With a Warnock win, that would give them a clear 51-vote majority; without one, Vice President Kamala Harris can still break ties in Democrats’ favor. That extra seat could make Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer less reliant on every member of his caucus to move legislation, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the game-changer that landing that 50th seat was.

So, When Can We Expect Results?

Well, voting ends at 7 p.m. and results should start getting posted online shortly after that. The high voter turnout suggests knowing the winner may take a while; the last time Georgia went to a runoff for a Senate seat, two races were in play, and the first got called at 2 a.m.; the second was decided at 4 p.m. the next day.

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Georgia is a massive state, its reporting units far flung, and its elections systems secure but slow. So, as The D.C. Brief has noted before, slow counting is good; every vote is being counted accurately, so don’t panic if you go to bed without knowing who won.

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