Georgia Senate runoff could limit the GOP’s reach in the state — or recognize national problems

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DULUTH, Ga. – Steve Williams is the type of voter Republicans have been furiously courting over the past four weeks in the Georgia Senate race.

The 33-year-old laments high inflation and voted for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R). During an interview at a park here in Duluth, he criticized Democrats’ stance on “culture war” issues such as gender identity, which GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker has played up in campaign ads.

Still, Williams endorsed Democrat Raphael G. Warnock for the Senate in November and plans to do so again on Tuesday. He said he wants to emphasize a message he believes many voters sent this midterm cycle: Republicans “can’t expect us to vote for garbage candidates.”

Georgia remains “culturally red,” he said. But “we are not just partisan machines.”

Democrats hope that many independents and Republicans will vote the same way on Tuesday, giving the party an opportunity to strengthen its slim majority in the Senate. For both parties, the runoff election — triggered when neither Senate candidate won a majority of the vote in November — provides a final test of their ability to motivate their base and persuade the political center in an increasingly purple state.

In the Georgia runoff, the GOP worries about Walker, Trump and the future of the party

Republicans – who won fewer seats than they had expected as midterms historically favor the party out of power – hope to secure a clean slate of the statewide races here. Four weeks of intensive campaigning wrapped up this weekend, with nearly 2 million votes already cast in early voting, which ended on Friday.

Walker, a former football star, and Warnock, the incumbent and a clergyman at a prominent, predominately Black Church in Atlanta, making their final pitches and pushing to get out of the vote this weekend, pressed their closing messages and covered the airwaves with ads.

Republicans are hoping that their voters will show up as a rebuke of President Biden and Democratic policies, despite intense scrutiny of Walker’s personal history and criticism that he is unqualified for the job. He trailed the rest of the Georgia GOP ticket on November 8, receiving about 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp.

Georgia midterm election results

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Walker reiterated his promises to become one “check” on Biden. If he ousts Warnock, he said, Democrats will have less power in the Senate: committees, for example, will remain evenly divided between parties, and Republicans will have more leverage to stop the Democrats’ agenda.

A day earlier, Walker had falsely proclaimed in an interview with Politico that GOP voters would be motivated to turn out because “they know right now that the House is going to be even.” It was one of many misdeeds that have dogged Walker’s campaign. (Republicans won a narrow majority in the House this fall, while Democrats ensured they will have at least 50 seats in the Senate, where Vice President Harris (D) can break ties.)

The stakes are high for both parties, even with the Senate majority deadlocked. Key parts of the Democrats’ agenda have run up against opposition from two members of their Senate caucus, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). The party will need all the seats it can get heading into a challenging 2024 cycle — where Democrats will defend seats in some states that decisively favored former President Donald Trump in the last election. Winning a 51st seat would also mean Democrats don’t have to negotiate a power-sharing deal, especially for Senate committee assignments.

“Anyone who cares if the Republicans win the majority in 2024, the first one to compete for is this one,” said Republican strategist Brad Todd. Acknowledging the GOP’s dismay at this year’s midterm results, he added, “It’s important to end with a win.”

GOP voter George Dunn said he reluctantly cast another vote for Walker in the runoff despite concerns about the candidate because he wants to curtail Democrats’ power in Washington. Several women have accused Walker of domestic violence, and two said he paid for their abortions despite his anti-abortion views, something Walker denies. Walker has also faced some questions about his state of residence after public records showed he took a tax exemption on a property in Texas intended for a primary home.

Dunn said it helped that Kemp went out of his way to bump into Walker, while Trump has kept his distance during the runoff.

“I made the decision that if Trump set foot in Georgia, I was out,” Dunn said.

However, Trump has continued to make headlines while speaking out against the 2020 election. That has prompted some rebuke, including in Georgia, where many Republicans believe Trump’s false election claims helped Democrats flip the Senate last year. On Saturday, the former president suggested revoking the Constitution if necessary to throw out his 2020 loss to Biden.

“It’s ridiculous,” Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, a vocal critic of Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, said below a CNN interview. “That’s insane. Suspending the constitution—come on, man, seriously?”

Warnock has focused his direct voter contact program in 18 counties, but also campaigned beyond them. He made one of his final campaign stops Sunday in Gainesville, Ga., in an area that heavily favored Republicans last month. He has repeatedly cast the race as one of “competence and character,” and Democrats have spent much of their resources attacking Walker on that front.

Ads that aired during Saturday’s SEC championship football game in Atlanta highlighted domestic violence allegations against Walker and ridiculed some of his confusing comments while on the campaign trail. GOP ads have praised Walker’s character, emphasizing his support from fellow Republicans and opposition to Biden. One spot was his former football coach at the University of Georgia, while another showed Kemp, the popular governor, saying he’s endorsing Walker because he doesn’t want to be “another rubber stamp for Joe Biden.”

Republicans have also stepped up their attacks on Warnock’s character, highlighting his ex-wife’s claims that Warnock ran over her foot with a car during a dispute i 2020. Warnock has denied the allegations. Police said officials did not find the ex-wife with any visible injuries, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has spent $2 million seeking efforts that use Kemp’s campaign infrastructure. Republicans consider Kemp to be Walker’s best advocate in the runoff; the governor campaigned apart from Walker while seeking re-election, but now appears in several ads for the Senate nominee.

How the ticket split looked in the interim periods

Walker who wants to stump Monday in northern Georgia, was in Loganville, a city northeast of Atlanta, on Sunday. He was joined by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Sen. Tim Scott (RS.C.).

Scott accused Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) of helping send trillions in stimulus during the coronavirus pandemic over GOP objections.

“Dear Lord, save us from the stupid high IQ people,” Kennedy said. “They may be clever, but they have no meaning.”

Pollsters and strategists said the GOP’s struggles in the Senate race — in which other Georgia Republicans prevailed — echoed nationwide problems.

“Candidate quality really seemed to matter a lot to these voters,” said Bryan Bennett, a senior pollster for Democratic-aligned Navigator Research. In a recent Navigator focus group of split-ticket voters across states observed by The Washington Post, one Atlanta-area man said he supported Kemp and Warnock in part because of Democrats’ legislation to cap prescription drug prices medicine, a key issue for his family.

While both parties have poured millions into ads in the runoff, they say it’s especially important to work on the ground in this phase, as turnout is hard to predict. State election officials reported record levels of early voting last week, with more than 1.8 million people casting their ballots before Election Day.

Democrats say they are confident they have Republicans outnumbered on the ground and have also spent about twice as much as Republicans on ads in the runoff, according to the firm AdImpact. They were boosted last week by a strong turnout from black voters who were central to their coalition in Georgia.

Still, Republicans also found hopeful signs in turnout in GOP-dominated areas and are counting on a strong showing Tuesday as their voters increasingly embrace Election Day. Republicans are also hoping to once again motivate white evangelical Christians, many of whom proudly supported Walker in November, to turn out and vote in the runoff.

The Republican National Committee said it has 400 staff and more than 85,000 volunteers working to get out the vote throughout the state’s 159 counties. “Republicans are leaving no stone unturned,” said RNC spokeswoman Savannah Viar.

Warnock’s field operation has more than 900 paid staff, with 300 people added to the attrition, according to the campaign. A group linked to the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC said last week it pumped about $11 million more into the turnout.

Sitting with his dog in Duluth on Sunday, Greg Hood said he might not have planned to cast another vote for Warnock if the Democratic turnout campaign hadn’t been so pervasive. Earlier that day, someone came to his door and urged him to vote for the incumbent.

“He’s got an army out there,” Hood said.

Wells reported from Loganville, Ga.

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