Had Democrats not won the very close Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada, Georgia’s December 6 runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker would have represented the second straight overtime match in the Peach State that decided control of the upper chamber. It would have been a familiar experience for Warnock, who won his seat in the dual January 2021 runoffs that sent the Atlanta minister and his ticket mate Jon Ossoff to Washington.
Instead, the runoff will decide whether Democrats will hang onto 50 Senate seats and run the chamber via Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, as they have the last two years, or will gain the breathing room of a single vote that might modestly reduce the power of centrist heretics Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And if, as still appears more likely than not, Republicans win control of the House, the precise Senate bean counting that dominated Washington speculation so often in 2021 and 2022 will become much less important as congressional gridlock paralyzes most legislation.
What is entirely unclear at this early point is which of the two runoff candidates benefits from the suddenly nonexistential stakes of the overtime contest.
On the one hand, the Republican voters who appear to have abandoned Herschel Walker in the first round, presumably because of the vast personal baggage that emerged into lurid sight during the 2022 campaign, will be under less pressure to put on the party yoke and come out on a Tuesday in December to save Walker’s candidacy in order to flip the Senate and smite Joe Biden. The former football legend ran five points behind Governor Brian Kemp and also trailed the other statewide Republican candidates, who all won majorities. As Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, Georgia Democrats have been quick to note the changed context of the runoff:
[N]ow that Democrats control the Senate, Walker can’t cast the race as a battle to flip back control of the chamber. And that could give voters worried about Walker’s personal issues less of a reason to vote in a post-Thanksgiving overtime race. “Republicans’ main argument for electing Herschel Walker just went up in smoke,” said Sarafina Chitika, a Warnock campaign spokeswoman.
On the other hand, it’s possible the modified stakes of the runoff will also make it hard for Democrats to replicate the massive ground game that worked so astonishingly well in the last Senate runoffs, particularly if Donald Trump doesn’t give them an assist by traveling the state like a wounded werewolf, complaining about rigged Georgia elections and discouraging GOP-base turnout. (Trump’s presence or absence from the state this time around may be a problem for Walker’s campaign to navigate, however.)
Republicans handily won earlier Senate general-election runoffs in Georgia, in 1992 and 2008, and have long championed the state’s peculiar majority-vote requirement, thinking it gave them an ace in the hole. They also put a thumb on the scales in enacting a highly controversial election-law rewrite in 2021. Aside from its more general restrictions on voting opportunities, the law moved general-election runoffs for federal offices from January to December, reportedly because a shorter campaign would reduce the early in-person voting days on which Democrats relied to turn out their vote. And in a new development, Republican secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has ruled that early in-person voting cannot take place on the Saturday before the runoff, as the Journal-Constitution reports:
Early voting won’t be allowed on [that Saturday] because it’s the day after the state holiday formerly known as Robert E. Lee’s Birthday and two days after Thanksgiving. Georgia election officials said this weekend that state law prohibits in-person early voting on Saturdays if a holiday is within two days beforehand.
The state quietly dumped the Lee holiday in 2015 but created an unnamed state holiday the day after Thanksgiving. It’s as though Robert E. Lee reached from the grave and killed a potentially crucial day of in-person early voting.
One hard-to-calculate variable involves national party investment in the runoff. No, Democrats don’t need the Georgia seat to control the Senate, but Warnock is a valued member of the team who should command some major resources. It’s less clear that national Republicans will continue to raise heaven and earth to help a struggling Herschel Walker campaign. Prior to confirmation of the Arizona and Nevada results, several Republican senators had been pushing to postpone election of their leadership until after December 6, which might have made Walker’s success a sine qua non for Mitch McConnell’s continuation as leader of his conference. With GOP control of the Senate off the table and leadership elections apparently scheduled for the week of November 14, it remains to be seen if Herschel Walker is going to have the teammates he needs for a win on December 6 — or a full stadium of fans ready to urge him on.