With Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada going to Democrats, the party will be assured of a narrow majority regardless of whether Herschel Walker defeats Sen. Raphael Warnock in next month’s runoff election, now less than three weeks away.
When Warnock and fellow Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff won their 2021 runoff, they allowed Democrats to maintain a 50-50 partisan split and gave the casting vote to Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The open question on this is whether or not the Democrats can restore the 2020 coalition,” said Daniel Paul Franklin, associate professor emeritus of political science at the state of Georgia. “And without the Senate on the line, that’s a blow to that, because the election isn’t the future of the world, the future of the country. There are some arcane matters related to Senate committee membership, but it’s pretty arcane.”
But candidates and their campaign supporters are working to get the vote out, arguing that who Georgia sends to Washington still matters. Warnock said Tuesday in Atlanta Ossoff needs a partner in DC regardless of next year’s party split.
“Even if you have two senators from the same party representing the same state, it’s not often that they work as closely together as Jon Ossoff and I do. There’s often some sort of competition going on and I tease him about the whole seniors and juniors thing, but he and I are friends and we’re colleagues.”
Warnock joked about the fact that Ossoff is Georgia’s senior senator, despite being elected at the same time and Ossoff being nearly 20 years younger than Warnock. Ossoff holds this distinction because of a Senate rule that states that if two senators are equally entitled to the title, the senior is the one whose last name comes first alphabetically.
“We have found that we can achieve more when we work together for Georgia. And that’s part of what’s at stake in this election, because Georgia has something good going on with two Democratic senators, and we’ve been able to push our own party to do things that they didn’t necessarily want to do.”
Warnock said he and Ossoff worked together to persuade members of the Democratic caucus to increase incentives for Georgia to expand Medicaid, which blue-state senators disagreed with.
At a rally Tuesday night in Jefferson, Walker made a similar argument — since Republicans retain control of state government, they need a partner in Washington, he said.
“But what’s happening is this guy that we have in office doesn’t work with the governor, doesn’t work with guys like Tyler[Harper, Georgia commissioner-elect of Agriculture]at the federal level, because what he’s doing is rowing everyone in the boat.” He rows one way the other because he votes for all these things that don’t belong in Georgia.”
Walker gave the example of the “green agenda” for which he said Georgia is not ready. Gov. Brian Kemp has touted investments from electric vehicle makers like Rivian and Hyundai in the state.
Warnock won his place after defeating the then Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff after the 2020 election.
If they are to avoid a repeat of that loss, they need a new message, said Jason Shepherd, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University and former chair of the Cobb County GOP.
“Ossoff and Warnock primarily won the special election — along with Lin Wood and Donald Trump saying don’t trust the vote — but they also focused their message more on issues dear to Georgia voters, while Republicans “Save the Senate, save America,” he said, referring to a line repeated in Loeffler’s ad.
“The truth is, all politics is local, and runoffs are particularly about who represents the issues or values that the majority of Georgia voters care about,” Shepherd said. “And if they elected Brian Kemp and Republicans in all offices statewide to the government for the next four years, I think that shows a lot about where most voters are in Georgia.”
Kemp received around 200,000 votes more than Walker, whose campaign was riddled with allegations of unfitness, repeated lies about his past accomplishments and abuse by family members. Kemp’s main focus this year is on his achievements during his first term, with an emphasis on the economy, which Georgians have listed as their top concern. Walker’s campaign focused more on cultural issues such as participation in transgender sports and “vigilance” in government.
Kemp’s name won’t be on the ballot next month, but the governor is reportedly loaning Walker some of his staff for the runoff, and he’s also hoping to lend his popularity at a planned joint appearance over the weekend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
Democrats’ messages to voters will be about Senate balance, said Brenda Lopez Romero, a former Democratic state representative who now chairs the Gwinnett County Democratic Party.
“The Senate is still determined by Georgia,” she said. “It is absolutely still important that we win this 51st vote. It would help with negotiations, especially if we might have one or two of the dissenting senators who haven’t been helpful in moving forward on various legislative agendas. That Senate seat is still crucial, not dangling from that 50-50 line doesn’t make this election any less important.”
President Joe Biden has received no little grief from Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who opposed significant parts of his agenda.
How candidates reach voters is just as important as their message, Lopez Romero said, and Democrats will focus on speaking face-to-face with as many voters as possible during the short election season.
One of the benefits of interacting face-to-face with voters is that you can be assured they know where, when and how to vote. This is particularly important in a quick runoff, said Lopez Romero.
“We strongly encourage people to vote in person and vote as early as possible, even if it’s this one week of early voting that we have,” she said. “We are only concerned about the shortened time as absentee ballots can be mailed to voters and voters can deliver them by post or letter box in the required time. And of course also with some questions about the refusal of postal votes.”
Warnock and Democrat allies are suing the state to force Georgia to allow counties to hold early voting on Saturday, Nov. 26, arguing that not offering to vote on Saturday makes it harder for those who work weekdays to cast a ballot.
Some Metro Atlanta counties, including Gwinnett, will offer a Sunday early voting day, Lopez Romero said.
“But the reality is, getting reelections is always difficult, and part of the tactic used by the Republican-controlled state legislature to really put people off voting is to do exactly this kind of abbreviated to conduct a runoff election. But we know what works isn’t just the message, it’s how we reach voters. And I think one of the most important things we do is get out there, knock on doors, poll our neighborhoods and our neighbors, and remind them how important it is to come out and vote.”
With Kemp’s help, Walker’s team will likely focus just as much on knocking on doors and calling supporters, Shepherd said.
“I think the focus is on the ground game. I think that will be more important than TV commercials. I think at this point your average Georgian who isn’t inclined to vote in the runoff will just be noise to them.”
Early voting is scheduled to begin Nov. 28, and voters should check with their county’s registry office for details on times and locations.
Former President Donald Trump is poised for another attempt at the White House, and he made his intentions official in an announcement from his Florida home on Tuesday.
That could put the race in a new light, Franklin said.
“I think Trump has done the Democrats a tremendous favor,” he said. “It wouldn’t have killed him to wait until after the runoff to make his announcement.”
Lopez Romero said she doesn’t see the announcement as a favor. She said Trump would be “devastating” to the nation if he were re-elected in 2024, in part because of his persistent lies about the 2020 election results.
“Obviously that’s something we can emphasize more, and the fact that he would once again be a very devastating individual to our democracy in general, absolutely, is a message we can use, but quite frankly there’s no point to have him on the ballot to benefit our country,” she said.