Georgia’s Senate race has been tightened by more than 60% of the vote total in a contest that will shape the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled Senate next year.
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are neck-and-neck, each hovering around 50% of the vote as of 9:00 PM ET.
The race caps a difficult midterm cycle for Republicans — who won the House majority but saw their hopes of Capitol Hill dominance dashed by the problematic candidacies of some Donald Trump-backed Senate nominees.
As Trump has urged Walker to run, the runoff is also a final midterm test of the former president’s influence as he embarks on a third bid at the White House. And in the wake of President Joe Biden narrowly carrying the state in 2020, combined with two Senate victories that gave him a Democratic Senate seat in 2021, Tuesday’s runoff could go a long way toward answering whether Georgia is now definitively a purple state.
Democratic control of the Senate next year was already decided by hard-fought contests in states like Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto clung to her seat despite economic headwinds, and Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman won a GOP-held seat. .
But Tuesday’s election will determine whether Democrats gain critical influence on Capitol Hill. The Senate has been split evenly 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. It has given disproportionate power to moderate figures such as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who have often single-handedly curbed their party’s ambitions. If Warnock wins a full six-year term, Democrats would have a 51-49 majority that would allow them to dispense with the current power-sharing deal with Republicans while making it easier to promote Biden’s nominee.
Although Warnock received more votes than Walker in last month’s general election, he fell short of the majority needed to win outright. The ensuing runoff has attracted more than $80 million in ad spending, according to data from ad tracking firm AdImpact, with Democrats spending about twice as much as Republicans.
Warnock held a narrow lead over Walker in a CNN poll published last week. Walker had a negative rating as voters questioned his honesty after a series of scandals. He has denied reports that he pressured or encouraged women to have abortions, despite previously advocating a ban on the procedure without exceptions on the campaign trail. CNN’s KFile has reported that he is getting a primary residence-only tax break this year on his Dallas, Texas, area home — while running for the Georgia seat.
The state broke records for single-day early voting last week, but the early voting period was significantly condensed starting in 2021. The total number of voters fell from about 3.1 million last year to about 1.87 million in 2022. Democrats are optimistic, in part due to black voters – who strongly favored Warnock in the CNN poll. They accounted for nearly 32% of early voting turnout, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.
However, Walker expects robust turnout among GOP voters, who tend to vote in larger numbers on Election Day.
“This is about turnout,” Walker said Monday as he urged voters to “flood the polls.”
“Now we have to get into the game. We can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.”
But Trump — who, like Biden, steered clear of the Peach State during the runoff — has complicated GOP fortunes across the country this year as voters rejected many of his election-defying candidates in swing states.
Some of the earliest signs of that were in Georgia two years ago, when his efforts to cast doubt on mail-in ballots and vote counting were partly blamed for the GOP’s 2021 two-runoff loss that gave Democrats control of the Senate.
This year, the former president’s efforts to get revenge on GOP Gov. Brian Kemp — who rejected Trump’s call to overturn the 2020 election — were rightly rejected by voters in the primary. Kemp went on to defeat Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams last month, earning about 200,000 more votes than Walker.
While Kemp and Walker spoke a few times during the general campaign, the two men largely kept their distance from each other on the track. It all changed in the runoff. Kemp attended a rally with Walker and appeared in an ad for him. He held private fundraisers and loaned a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC the get-out-the-vote apparatus he had spent months building, all of which could prove critical of Walker.
But Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who also balked at Trump’s outlandish demands after the 2020 election, told CNN on Monday that Trump’s support in the primary was the only reason Walker became the GOP nominee, but now the former president is “probably biggest headwind Herschel Walker has.”
Duncan suggested that Tuesday’s election would serve as a sort of final showdown for Trump — one that could prompt Republicans to take a firmer stand against his meddling in future elections, even as the former president seeks to re-establish himself as the party’s standard-bearer in his recent announced bid to retake the White House.
“We’re trying to break this vicious cycle of dependence on Donald Trump as Republicans,” Duncan said on CNN’s “AC360.”
“We just got confused when it should have been one of the biggest, easiest layups we’ve made in years, in decades. But unfortunately, we’re putting the wrong candidates in places all over the country.”
After seeing losses in key states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, top Republicans are planning a more aggressive push to support candidates in primaries they consider more electable. The incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Montana Sen. Steve Daines, told CNN, “Obviously, you want to see candidates who can win general elections, and we’re going to continue to work on that.”
Still, Trump weighed in on Walker’s behalf in a televised rally on Monday, telling supporters that if his candidate wins, “the Republicans can make (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer’s life a little more difficult, and we can put the brakes on all the extreme left-wing judges.”
“A vote for Raphael Warnock is a vote to give Chuck Schumer and the unhinged left-wing Democrats total control of the US Senate. We cannot let this happen,” he added.
This story has been updated with further developments.