February 9, 2023

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The Legal System

How Either Candidate Could Win Georgia’s Senate Runoff

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are headed to a runoff in Georgia’s Senate race next week after neither surpassed the 50 percent threshold required by state law to win outright. But will it be a repeat of last year’s runoff — when Warnock and fellow Democratic then-candidate Sen. Jon Ossoff narrowly defeated their Republican rivals? Or are we heading for an election that makes 2021 look like an outlier?

The stakes of the race are high, even though Democrats have already clinched their 50-seat majority, as an additional seat would give the party more leverage over its more conservative members and allow it to claim majorities on every committee. Plus, a Warnock win would better position the party for the 2024 cycle. For Republicans, a Walker win would force Democrats to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote and serve as a blow to that cushion Democrats so desperately want.

In other words, both parties have a lot to gain — and lose — based on the upcoming runoff election. You’ve read this book before, right? Well, it’s worth remembering that the sequel might look a bit different, as Ossoff and Warnock’s previous wins bucked prior Georgia runoff historical trends. In fact, in the past, Republicans have typically dominated Georgia’s runoffs.

Before 2020, the GOP usually gained ground in Georgia runoffs

Shift in vote margin and percentage change in turnout from the general election to the runoff for statewide races in Georgia, 1992-2020

Year Office General Margin Runoff Margin Diff.
2020 U.S. Senate R+1.8 D+1.2 D+3.0
2020 U.S. Senate* R+1.0 D+2.1 D+3.1
2020 Public Service Commission R+2.9 R+0.8 D+2.2
2018 Secretary of State R+0.4 R+3.8 R+3.4
2018 Public Service Commission R+2.1 R+3.5 R+1.4
2008 U.S. Senate R+2.9 R+14.9 R+12.0
2008 Public Service Commission D+0.6 R+13.0 R+13.7
2006 Public Service Commission D+2.6 R+4.4 R+7.0
1998 Public Service Commission* D+15.8 D+31.4 D+15.6
1992 U.S. Senate D+1.6 R+1.3 R+2.9
1992 Public Service Commission R+0.7 R+13.6 R+12.9

*Special election

Georgia rules require a candidate to win a majority of the vote in general elections or special elections; if no candidate wins a majority, there is a runoff between the top-two finishers. If a special election took place on a regular general election date, it is included in this table. In these cases, there may be multiple candidates from each party running, so the Democratic and Republican totals are the combined vote share of all candidates from that party.

Sources: Georgia Secretary of State

However, because of what happened during the 2020 cycle and the fact that recent polling shows that this race could be a tight one, it’s hard to rely only on historical data. The first poll of the runoff, a November Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research survey for AARP, showed the incumbent with 51 percent support from voters versus Walker’s 47 percent. But a second, more recent, Phillips Academy Poll of likely voters, on the other hand, showed Walker and Warnock essentially neck-and-neck (48 percent to 47 percent, respectively) with 5 percent of voters still undecided. And a third FrederickPolls, Compete Digital, and AMM Political survey of likely runoff voters had the two men tied at 50 percent support each.

All this is to say that, this go-around, there are a number of factors working in both Warnock and Walker’s favor. So what’s the case that we’re heading for another 2021? And what’s the case for an outcome that looks like — er — most other statewide runoffs in Georgia’s history?

The case for a Warnock victory 

In 2021, Warnock and Ossoff won, in part, by gaining on President Biden’s November 2020 margins, especially in counties with the largest shares of Black voters. That could be because Democrats worked overtime to turn out their voters and prominent figures like Stacey Abrams, the state’s 2018 and 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, pioneered a new playbook to get voters of color out to the polls, marshaling the political power of the growing number of Black people who have moved to Georgia over the past two decades.

Warnock is again banking on voters of color to deliver for him. And they very well could: Exit polling data from earlier this month (which is imperfect and subject to change) shows that roughly 28 percent of the voting electorate in Georgia was Black while 6 percent was Latino, roughly the same shares as in 2020. This shows that turnout among these blocs didn’t notably tick down despite it being a midterm election with very different dynamics from 2020 and it could be a sign that energy remains high among these groups. And that lines up with other polling suggesting that Warnock supporters are just more excited about backing their candidate than Walker supporters. An October Fox News poll found that 63 percent of Warnock proponents backed the Democrat “enthusiastically,” compared with 49 percent who said the same of Walker.

A bubble chart showing the number of votes Democrat and Republican candidates got in this year’s statewide races in Georgia’s election. Hershel Walker got the least votes of any Republican candidate at 1.91 million votes and Raphael Warnock got the most votes of any Democratic candidate at 1.94 million votes.
A bubble chart showing the number of votes Democrat and Republican candidates got in this year’s statewide races in Georgia’s election. Hershel Walker got the least votes of any Republican candidate at 1.91 million votes and Raphael Warnock got the most votes of any Democratic candidate at 1.94 million votes.

Indeed, this enthusiasm gap became obvious on Election Day, when every other statewide Georgia Republican won their race outright. And while Warnock got the most votes of any Democratic statewide candidate, Walker got the least votes of any Republican candidate. It’s clear some split-ticket voting took place, too, as Gov. Brian Kemp, who sailed to reelection against Abrams, earned over 2.11 million voters versus Walker’s 1.91 million. Warnock also finished a tad ahead of Walker in the first ballot, with 1.94 million votes, so he might have the easier path to the 50 percent winning threshold.

This discrepancy makes some sense, too, given that Walker is at the center of numerous controversies, including allegations that he encouraged and/or paid for multiple women to terminate their pregnancies (which Walker denies), despite once campaigning on a platform that included a total ban on abortions. More recently, CNN reported that Walker is receiving a tax exemption on his home in Texas, which is meant for primary residents of the state, even as he ran for Senate in Georgia.

“Of the roughly 2 million votes that went for Walker, some of them were bound to be from Republicans who had to grit their teeth and close their eyes and vote for him because they wanted to see a Republican Senate to put checks on Joe Biden,” said Charles Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Well, that’s off the table now.” As a result, he said, those same voters might stay home in this year’s runoff.

And with no other Republicans on the ballot, Walker won’t have the added benefit of riding another candidate’s coattails during the December runoff. Warnock also has the small — but not insignificant — advantage of incumbency on his side. Plus, he’s a fundraising behemoth, with nearly $29.7 million on hand as of Nov. 16, compared with Walker’s $9.8 million, and has the support of Democratic heavyweights like former President Barack Obama.

The last wildcard that could benefit Warnock is Trump. His recently announced presidential run and backing of Walker could motivate Democrats who “don’t want to give him a win,” Bullock told me. Republicans in the state similarly raised concerns about whether Trump’s involvement in the race could hurt Walker, but Warnock is already running TV ads tying his opponent to the former president. 

The case for a Walker victory 

Of course, we’d be silly to write off Walker’s candidacy in this race. (There’s a reason why our final Deluxe forecast, which was frozen early Nov. 8, estimated that Walker would have a significant edge in a runoff). If nothing else, he may still be helped by the state’s historical tendency toward a more Republican-leaning runoff electorate.

As we’ve written previously, in the 11 runoffs between a Democrat and a Republican for statewide office, held between the late 1960s and 2020, most favored Republicans. In fact, in seven of those races, the runoff margin was better for the GOP than the general-election margin. This is largely attributable to the drop-off in turnout — fewer people vote in runoff races than in general elections — and the decline usually disproportionately affects Democrats.

That wasn’t the case last year, but that was in part because Trump dissuaded Republicans from trusting the state’s electoral system — which dampened GOP voter turnout. But Trump is doing the exact opposite this year. In fact, during his 2024 presidential campaign announcement, the former president implored Republicans to support Walker, calling him “a fabulous human being who loves our country.” On top of that, Walker has also held events in metro Atlanta in recent weeks — which has been a bellwether for statewide Democrats — and is receiving significant outside support from national Republican-aligned groups to bolster his candidacy.

Walker is also receiving a lift this go-around from an unlikely ally: Kemp. After seemingly distancing himself from the Senate hopeful in the lead-up to Election Day, the governor, who is extremely popular in Georgia, has since become more vocal about his support for Walker. According to various reports, Kemp is also lending a key part of his campaign infrastructure to help Walker, which includes the governor’s door-knocking, data analytics and phone banking programs.

Walker might also be able to court runoff voters by tying Warnock to President Biden, who has an underwater approval rating in the state. Biden — like Trump — notably stayed away from Georgia in the final weeks of the election and instead headed to other battleground states. But Walker has still repeatedly tried to use Biden’s unpopularity against Warnock, assailing the senator as a rubber-stamp for the White House. 

And despite more tepid enthusiasm for Walker’s campaign among his base, it’s possible, too, that some Democrats could sit out this race. After all, and like we said before, control of the Senate isn’t on the line like it was last year.

The 2021 Georgia runoff was different. Next week’s election will tell us if it was an outlier — or the potential harbinger of more Democratic statewide victories to come. If past runoffs are any guide, we’d expect there to be at least some dropoff in turnout. In 2021, for example, turnout was down about 10 percent from the total votes cast in November 2020, and historically that was an unusually small decline in runoff turnout. “There are fewer incentives to turn out this year than there were in 2021,” Bullock said. “So we might expect less people to show up to the polls this year.”

Still, the outcome of this race will tell us which side can better mobilize their base, even during a midterm year when control of the Senate isn’t at stake. And that could start to answer a much bigger question: Is the Peach State red enough to where we can regard recent Democratic wins as an off-chance phenomenon? Or is it now more competitive — or even purple — meaning races can swing in either party’s favor based on the circumstances and candidates?