2022 midterms

Warnock Is Going After Kemp Voters in the Georgia Runoff

Raphael Warnock in his second campaign for a general-election runoff in two years. Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Typically, the name of the game in special elections is base mobilization. In contests that aren’t part of the regular election calendar, reflexive participation is a lot less common, and it’s generally assumed the easiest voters to turn out are committed partisans who welcome any opportunity to strike a blow for the cause or against the despised enemy. But in Georgia’s December 6 U.S. Senate runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, the senator clearly isn’t depending solely on base mobilization.

Technically, this isn’t a special election but the culmination of the November 8 general election in a state where a majority of the vote is required for victory. But with virtually no other contests on the ballot (barring some scattered state-legislative runoffs), most potential Senate voters normally wouldn’t pay much attention to the December 6 election.

That was not the case the last time Georgia held a Senate runoff — actually two runoffs — in January 2021. That year, turnout in Warnock’s two races dropped from about 4.9 million in November to just under 4.5 million in January. But the very high turnout undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that partisan control of the Senate was on the line. When voters choose between Warnock and Walker this time around, control is not at stake. Moreover, the two candidates and their parties will have a shorter period of time in which to get voters revved up (a controversial 2021 state-election law moved runoffs for federal offices up by about a month, shortening the time for early voting, on which Democrats disproportionately rely).

As my colleague (and current Georgia resident) Zak Cheney-Rice recently explained, it’s possible that the intense series of high-stake contests in Georgia over the past two years have left the electorate pre-mobilized and hyperpolarized:

Here in Georgia, we are up to our necks in election material. Rare is the mail delivery that doesn’t feature a stack of pamphlets. You can’t open YouTube without hearing about Warnock’s reckless spending in Washington, D.C., or Walker threatening to start a shoot-out with cops. As I type these words, my wife is at our front door talking with a canvasser.

Still, the relatively low national stakes of this contest have to worry Democrats given their traditional turnout disadvantage in Georgia runoffs prior to 2021. In 2008, turnout in a Senate race involving incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin dropped from over 3.7 million in November to 2.1 million in December, and the Republican’s percentage of the vote rose from 49.8 percent to 57.4 percent. Maybe that wasn’t typical since 2008 was a presidential year in which Barack Obama headed up the November Democratic ticket. But 2021 wasn’t typical, either.

In any event, Team Warnock seems acutely aware that Republicans swept every other Georgia statewide office on November 8 and that their path to victory relies on continuing to promote Republican doubts about Walker, who underperformed, especially as compared with ticket mate Brian Kemp, the incumbent GOP governor who defeated Stacey Abrams handily.

Warnock is running an ad directly appealing to these Kemp voters in order to either keep them in his column or keep them at home:

This ad alludes to Walker’s shaky efforts throughout the campaign to deal with serial allegations of abusive, irresponsible, and hypocritical conduct as well as chronic lying (attested to by his own social-media-celebrity son). But there’s another burr beneath Walker’s saddle for some Republicans (and virtually all Democrats and many independents): his close, longtime association with Donald Trump, the man who unsuccessfully tried to purge Brian Kemp in the GOP primary earlier this year. Warnock is exploiting that connection in another ad after Trump gave Walker a shout-out in his controversial 2024 presidential-announcement speech, as the Washington Post explains:

Warnock’s campaign released a new TV ad Thursday calling attention to Trump’s endorsement of Walker during his speech at Mar-a-Lago. It features a clip of the former president praising the GOP candidate and urging people to “Get out and vote for Herschel.” The ad ends with the words “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker.”

This ad not only appeals to anti-Trump Democrats, Republicans, and independents but also cleverly encourages MAGA types to wonder why their hero isn’t in Georgia thumping the tubs for Walker. Trump’s presence or absence is a major strategic problem for Walker, who is now benefiting from active campaigning on his behalf by none other than Kemp.

Early voting in this contest currently begins November 28. (Warnock and his allies are in court trying to restore a Saturday for early in-person voting on November 26, which the Republican secretary of state removed on the grounds that it is prohibited by a state law banning voting within two days of a holiday.) It’s likely to be a very close race in which Warnock’s ability to simultaneously turn out his base and discourage a small slice of Kemp voters from voting for Walker could be key. If the senator wins, he will have earned not only a full six-year term but perhaps some rest from an unsparing campaign trail on which he has labored almost constantly since his first announcement of candidacy in January 2020.

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Warnock Is Going After Kemp Voters in the Georgia Runoff