The election, a rematch between Baptist pastor Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and former football star Herschel Walker (R) will tell us more about how much candidate quality really matters, whether Democrats are able to replicate the gains they saw in Georgia in 2021, and which party was able to keep more of its voters energized.
The outcome will also have big implications for power in the Senate. While Georgia’s election will no longer decide the majority, it could determine whether Democrats secure a 51st seat, which would give them more control over committees, judicial nominations, and the upper chamber’s legislative agenda.
Depending on how close the race is, we may not know the results for a day or two, though we’re likely to soon have a better read on several issues the runoff has raised. Here are five key questions we’re watching as results come in this week.
1) Could Warnock maintain his lead from the general election and in the polls?
Although he did not get a majority of the votes in the general election, Warnock did beat Walker, securing 49.4 percent of the vote to Walker’s 48.5 percent. Because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote, the race went to a runoff, as required by Georgia law.
Since the general election, Warnock has been leading consistently in polls, with most of the surveys conducted continuing to show him ahead by narrow margins. A late November poll from Emerson College and The Hill had Warnock up by 2 percentage points among likely voters, while another poll from SurveyUSA and WXIA-TV Atlanta had Warnock up by 3 percentage points. Warnock also benefits from incumbency — having served for nearly two years, he’s a name Georgians know — and has previously maintained solid approval ratings in the state.
The senator’s lead in the general and the latest polling suggest he’s in a strong position going into this runoff, but the main unknown is whether enough of the voters who supported him in November will be motivated to vote again.
2) Are Walker’s scandals sufficient to deter Republican voters?
Another big outstanding question is whether Walker could still win in the face of his numerous scandals and campaign trail missteps.
During his campaign, Walker has been plagued with a series of issues, including allegations that, despite being staunchly anti-abortion himself, he paid for two women’s abortions (he has denied both allegations). Walker has also faced allegations of domestic violence, scrutiny over policy gaffes, and claims that he misrepresented his business record, charitable donations, and experience in law enforcement.
Most of these allegations and policy missteps were public ahead of the general election, suggesting that many Republicans remain willing to back him regardless, and could continue to do so.
For some voters, Walker’s celebrity in Georgia as a football player and the fact that he’d bolster Republicans’ numbers in the Senate could be sufficient reasons to overlook the other problems that have been raised. Republicans have also worked to tie Warnock with Biden, who has been blamed for inflation and has low approval ratings in the state.
3) Which party can turn out more voters?
Turning voters back out for the second time is the real challenge of any runoff election. In this case, both campaigns face new obstacles.
Because of a 2021 Georgia election law, there were just four weeks between the general election and the runoff, which is a much shorter period for early voting and returning absentee ballots. That’s a lot less time than during the 2020 runoffs, when there were nine weeks between the two races.
Additionally, unlike last time, no new voters could register between the general election and the runoff, so the candidates had to target residents who were already registered. Both candidates also have to contend with different stakes than in 2020, when control of the Senate hinged on Georgia. This year, there is concern that because the state will no longer determine the majority, some could feel less motivated to vote.
The two candidates have had to navigate unique headwinds as well. Walker was likely helped in the general by the strong support that more popular GOP candidates, particularly Gov. Brian Kemp, had. Kemp, who 56 percent of Georgia residents approved of in a November Marist poll, is no longer on the ticket, and it’s possible some Republicans could stay home because of that. In the general election, 200,000 voters who backed Kemp did not vote for Walker, and some of those Georgians could opt out of the runoff entirely.
Democrats, meanwhile, are up against the state’s slight Republican lean and historic successes the GOP has had in Georgia runoffs, a trend they bucked last cycle. There’s also a chance that Walker could pick up votes from those who supported the libertarian candidate, Chase Oliver, in the general election.
So far, early voting suggests some positive signs for Democrats, though turnout could look very different on Election Day, since Republicans are more likely to vote then. This year, more than 1.8 million people cast votes early either in person or via absentee ballot, breaking records for the number of early votes submitted in a day. That’s likely because of the shortened early voting period people had to work with this time around; most voters had less than a week this cycle compared to multiple weeks for the 2021 race, and many reported waiting in long lines at their polling places.
As Politico reported, there have been strong early turnout numbers in Democratic-leaning counties and among Black voters, a majority of whom previously supported Warnock, both trends that could bode well for him.
4) Were the 2021 elections in Georgia an anomaly?
Democrats saw strong gains in the 2021 elections, driven by aggressive organizing efforts that turned out voters of color in the state, many of whom supported the party’s candidates. Those races, which sent two Democrats to the Senate, as well as Joe Biden to the White House, marked the first time in years that Democrats had won Senate seats and the presidency in the state.
These wins spoke to how the state is becoming more purple, a shift that the runoff could further reaffirm. While there are certainly factors that make this race unique, including Walker’s specific candidate quality issues, another Democratic success this cycle would show that the party’s victories in the state can be replicated.
Many of the organizations that played a pivotal role in reaching voters in past races, such as the New Georgia Project Action Fund, have put in significant resources this cycle as well. Despite these efforts, the overall turnout rate in the state fell compared to 2018 in the general election, indicating that past gains could still fluctuate in the future.
5) Which party had the stronger closing argument?
Both parties have invested heavily to mobilize voters in the last four weeks, although Democrats have outspent Republicans roughly two to one, according to NBC News. In the last month or so, Democrats have spent $52.5 million on political ads to Republicans’ $25 million, the publication reported.
The two parties have also boosted the two candidates with their respective surrogates, with former President Barack Obama visiting the state to stump for Warnock last week, and Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and John Kennedy (R-LA) among those doing the same for Walker. Walker’s campaign has also tapped Kemp for ads, while former President Donald Trump — someone who’s turned off moderate voters in the state — has kept a lower profile.
Although the Senate majority question is no longer being decided by the state, Republicans and Democrats have sought to underscore the importance of the seat.
Walker has emphasized that he would help the GOP counter the Biden administration, noting repeatedly that he would not be a “rubber stamp” for its policies, and argued that he’d help combat problems like inflation. Warnock, meanwhile, has said that this election is less about partisanship and more about “right and wrong,” jabbing at Walker over his scandals and fitness for office. Warnock has stressed, too, the policies he’s helped advance, including an insulin cap for Medicare recipients and a bipartisan proposal that bolsters highway funding in the state.
Tuesday’s outcome could speak to which candidate’s message wound up being more compelling, particularly for swing voters.