Tens of millions of dollars in ad spending. Record-breaking early voting turnout. New allegations of domestic violence and carpetbagging against the Republican candidate.
All those features of the bitter, monthslong general election Senate campaign in Georgia between Republican Herschel Walker and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock have returned in the four weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff. Given how the first round went, the deja vu could be bad news for Walker.
By the time Georgia counted all the general election ballots last month, Warnock led Walker by 37,675 votes, less than one percent shy of winning the race outright. But a Georgia law requiring a runoff if no candidate gets 50% of the votes, and a Libertarian on the ballot who drew 2% support, set the stage for a Dec. 6 runoff that will put a bow on 2022’s elections just in time for the holiday season.
Tuesday’s contest is likely to be similarly close. The most recent public polls of the race have found Warnock leading Walker, sometimes by several points, although others have found the Republican with a slight lead.
Walker, a former college football star, has been one of the GOP’s most controversial candidates this year, with a history of alleged scandals that includes violence against former romantic partners, paying for his girlfriends’ abortions despite his anti-abortion stance, failing to publically acknowledge his children, and lying about his own credentials. Even many Republicans agree that his personal history hurt him among moderate and independent voters.
“You can’t really blame it on policy positions,” says Jay Williams, founder and CEO of The Stoneridge Group, a Republican firm. “The reality is, [Democrats] were able to land a lot of negatives on him and make them stick. They have a lot more [opposition] research and former girlfriends and wives wanting to say stuff.”
Walker has tried to shape all the negative coverage into a redemption narrative, but the controversy has left many voters wary. At the polls last week, one of Georgia’s top Republicans, outgoing Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, couldn’t bring himself to vote for Walker. “Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history,” Duncan said to CBS News.
Ahead of the general election, Democrats sought to frame the race as a choice between Walker and Warnock rather than as a referendum on national politics. They have even firmer ground to hammer home that strategy in the runoff, after Democrat John Fetterman flipped Pennsylvania’s Senate seat last month, guaranteeing the party continued control of the Senate.
While control of the chamber is not at stake on Tuesday, the outcome could affect the ability of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to shepherd legislation through Congress. If Warnock wins Georgia, the balance of power will be 51-49; if Walker wins, it will remain 50-50, with Democrats retaining control because Vice President Kamala Harris can serve as a tiebreaker.
Kemp Joins Walker’s Team
The attacks Warnock and Walker have lobbed at one another haven’t changed much in the runoff. Perhaps the biggest change since the general election has been the appearance of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp as one of Walker’s most visible campaign surrogates.
Kemp drew a target on his back from his party’s rightwing after refusing to help former President Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election. Trump campaigned heavily against Kemp in this year’s Republican primary. Kemp still won, and then coasted to reelection last month.
Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host and former Kemp staffer, attributes Walker’s underperformance on Election Day to the fact that he and Kemp did not campaign together: “I don’t know the backstory on why that didn’t happen,” she says. “But they fixed that for the runoff.”
Before the runoff, Kemp barely talked about Walker, instead branding himself as a sensible leader who survived standing up to Trump.
Read more: Brian Kemp’s Revenge
“[Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger were the guys nobody wanted to have lunch with,” Zoller says. “And they went from there to having some of the biggest wins that Georgia Republicans have had in many years. They did that because they hunker down, they did their jobs, and they didn’t engage in the name-calling.”
Now, Kemp’s brand could help bolster Walker among voters hesitant to support such a controversial candidate. Since November 8th, Kemp has put the full weight of his political apparatus behind the former college football star. Trump, meanwhile, whose endorsement of Walker was pivotal to his winning the Republican primary, has largely stayed out of the runoff beyond participating in a virtual rally for him on Monday night.
Democrats have turned their full attention to turning out their voters, with the Warnock campaign’s field program knocking more doors in four weeks than it did in the 16 prior to the general election. Data from the Democratic firm TargetSmart indicates that Democrats had a significant edge during early voting.
“I’m surprised about Dem turnout,” Williams says. “It’s better than I expected.”
Warnock’s runoff strategy has been notable for focusing on reducing Walker’s margins in rural counties and mobilizing Black men who didn’t turn out for the general election, according to Terrance Woodbury, CEO of the progressive polling firm HIT Strategies. “He’s not just trying to return the voters that voted on Nov. 8th,” Woodbury says.
Tuesday’s runoff is a repeat of sorts of the one held two years ago in Georgia between Warnock and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. That contest, which handed control of the Senate to Democrats, was held in early January, eight weeks after the 2020 election. Since then, a new state law requires runoffs to be held four weeks after an election. Some progressive organizers were worried that the shorter time frame would hurt Democrats. Woodbury actually believes the opposite, pointing to focus groups he held last month with lower propensity voters, including young Georgians.
On the heels of a bitter general election campaign, not to mention the hard-fought runoffs of 2021, many Georgians are tired of hearing the same things over and over again, he says.
“They are exhausted with the ads, they’re exhausted with the attacks, they’re exhausted with the nationalization,” says Woodbury. “They’re also fatigued with this idea that they have to save America, or save Democracy, or just save Democrats.”
Georgia voters, he added, are ready to move on. “They understand the assignment, and they’re ready to get it over with.”