Jmillions of dollars in ad spend. Record turnout for early voting. New allegations of domestic violence and carpetbagging against the Republican candidate.
All of those hallmarks of the bitter Senate campaign for Georgia’s month-long general election between Republican Herschel Walker and incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock recurred in the four weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff. Given how the first round went, deja vu could be bad news for Walker.
When Georgia counted all the general election ballots last month, Warnock led Walker by 37,675 votes, less than one percent short of winning the race. But a Georgia law requiring a runoff if no candidate gets 50% of the vote, and a Libertarian on the ballot that got 2% support, set the stage for a runoff on Dec. 6 that will put a bow to the 2022 election just in time for the holiday season.
Tuesday’s contest should be just as tight. The race’s most recent public polls have found Warnock leading Walker, sometimes by several points, though 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 publicly acknowledge her children and lying about her own credentials. Even many Republicans agree that his personal story hurt him among moderate and independent voters.
“You can’t really blame political positions,” says Jay Williams, founder and CEO of The Stoneridge Group, a Republican company. “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 things.
Walker tried to turn all of the negative coverage into a redemption narrative, but the controversy left many voters wary. At the polls last week, one of Georgia’s top Republicans, incumbent Lieutenant Governor 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 told CBS News.
Ahead of the general election, Democrats sought to portray the race as a choice between Walker and Warnock rather than a referendum on national policy. They have even firmer ground to enact that strategy in the runoff, after Democrat John Fetterman flipped the Pennsylvania Senate seat last month, guaranteeing the party continued control of the Senate.
Although control of the chamber is not at stake on Tuesday, the outcome could affect Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s ability to push the legislation through Congress. If Warnock wins Georgia, the odds will be 51-49; if Walker wins, it will remain 50-50, with Democrats retaining control as Vice President Kamala Harris can serve as a tiebreaker.
Kemp joins Walker’s team
The attacks that Warnock and Walker threw at each other didn’t change much in the second round. Perhaps the biggest change since the general election has been the appearance of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp as one of Walker’s most visible campaign surrogates.
Kemp drew a target on his back from the right wing of his party after he refused to help former President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election results. Trump campaigned against Kemp in this year’s Republican primary. Kemp won anyway, then was re-elected last month.
Martha Zoller, conservative radio host and former Kemp employee, attributes Walker’s underperformance on Election Day to the fact that he and Kemp did not campaign together: “I don’t know the backstory of the reason why it didn’t happen,” she said. “But they corrected that for the second round.”
Before the second round, Kemp barely talked about Walker, presenting himself instead as a sensible leader who survived by standing up to Trump.
Read more: Brian Kemp’s Revenge
“[Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger was the guy no one wanted to have lunch with,” Zoller says. “And they went from there to win some of the biggest victories for Georgia Republicans in many years. They did it because they hid, they did their job and they didn’t insult each other.
Now, Kemp’s brand could help bolster Walker among voters who are reluctant to support such a controversial candidate. Since Nov. 8, Kemp has put the full weight of his political apparatus behind the former college football star. Trump, meanwhile, whose endorsement of Walker was key to his victory in the Republican primary, has largely stayed out of the runoff beyond attending a virtual rally for him on Monday night.
Democrats have turned their full attention to getting their constituents out, with the Warnock campaign’s field program knocking on more doors in four weeks than it did in the 16 before the general election. Data from Democratic firm TargetSmart indicates that Democrats had a significant advantage in early voting.
“I’m surprised at the turnout from Democrats,” Williams said. “It’s better than I expected.”
Warnock’s runoff strategy was notable for focusing on narrowing Walker’s margins in rural counties and mobilizing black men who didn’t run in the general election, according to polling firm CEO Terrance Woodbury. progressive HIT Strategies. “He’s not just trying to return voters who voted on November 8,” Woodbury said.
Tuesday’s second round is a sort of repeat of one held two years ago in Georgia between Warnock and Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler. That contest, which gave Democrats control of the Senate, took place in early January, eight weeks after the 2020 election. Since then, a new state law requires the runoff to take place four weeks after an election. Some progressive organizers feared the shorter deadline would hurt Democrats. Woodbury actually thinks otherwise, pointing to focus groups he held last month with low-propensity voters, including young Georgians.
In the wake of a bitter election campaign, let alone the hard-fought 2021 runoff, many Georgians are tired of hearing the same things over and over again, he says.
“They’re exhausted from the ads, they’re exhausted from the bombings, they’re exhausted from the nationalization,” Woodbury said. “They’re also tired of this idea that they have to save America, or save democracy, or just save the Democrats.”
Georgian voters, he added, are ready to move on. “They understand the mission and they are ready to get it over with.”
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