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5 things to watch as Georgia decides Warnock vs. Walker Senate runoff

CNN 12/6/2022 Gregory Krieg

The final drama of the 2022 midterm elections is coming to a head in Georgia on Tuesday, as Peach State voters – for the second time in as many years – cast ballots in a high-stakes US Senate runoff.

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock was the leading vote-getter in the November general election, over Republican nominee Herschel Walker, but he fell short of the majority need to win the race outright.

Now it’s a one-on-one contest and both parties have gone all-in to boost their ranks in the Democratic-controlled Senate and send a message ahead of the 2024 presidential election, when Georgia could again be a decisive swing state. The spending by campaigns and aligned outside groups has been stratospheric and turnout, despite the state’s new election laws allowing for fewer days of early voting, was robust ahead of Tuesday’s election.

As voting ends in Georgia one last time this year, here are five things to watch for during and immediately after the runoff.

Turnout boom or bust?

For the past few weeks, Georgia Republican election officials have been crowing about early in-person voting turnout. On Friday, the state broke its single-day record, again, when more than 350,000 people went to the polls to cast ballots before Election Day.

But these numbers, and the narrative around them, might ultimately be misleading. Though several days last week ended with historically high single-day tallies, the overall number of early voters – as compared to the 2021 election – actually went down, from roughly 3.1 million last year to about 1.87 million during this year’s condensed early voting period. (In the general election this year, about 2.5 million voted before Election Day.)

The reason is simple: Under Georgia’s controversial voting law, passed in the months after last year’s runoffs, the time between the general election and the runoff was reduced from nine weeks to four. The compressed timeframe also meant fewer days of early voting and less time for voters to return mail-in ballots.

Given the obvious interest in the race, it’s a question of whether voters accustomed to voting before Election Day will show up Tuesday, and how that shift in behavior might affect wait times and counting of the votes. Difficulties at polling places are more likely to pop up in urban centers, where Warnock is hoping to run up the score against Walker.

Democrats seek a true majority

In the 2020 cycle, Democrats had to sweep both Senate runoffs in Georgia to secure the 50-50 split in the Senate that, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ status as the tie-breaking vote, would give them control.

This time, Democrats have already retained control, with 50 seats clinched last month and Georgia representing a potential 51st.

But the stakes remain high: A Warnock victory would give Democrats the majority outright, rather than requiring the power-sharing agreement that is now in place. And that outright majority would come with significant benefits for the party. Democrats would have the majority on committees, allowing them to advance President Joe Biden’s nominees more easily.

For example: The Senate Judiciary Committee, with its 22 members, would shift from a split of 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans to 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans. That would remove a GOP procedural mechanism to slow down the confirmation of Biden’s judicial nominees.

It’s why advertising spending in the runoff has surpassed $80 million, according to a CNN analysis of data from ad tracking firm AdImpact. Democrats have outspent Republicans so far, by about $55.1 million to $25.8 million.

Trump’s last shot at a Senate win

Walker coasted to the Republican nomination in Georgia in large part because of the support of former President Donald Trump.

But Trump’s endorsement – while powerful enough to catapult his preferred contenders to the nominations in Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere – turned out to be an anchor in competitive statewide races this year.

Trump-backed candidates such as venture capitalist Blake Masters in Arizona, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and former state attorney general Adam Laxalt in Nevada fumbled winnable races, while venture capitalist J.D. Vance, who eked out a victory in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary thanks to Trump’s last-minute endorsement, survived a much tougher-than-expected contest with Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.

A loss by Walker could further erode Republicans’ confidence in Trump’s ability to pick winners. It would also demonstrate what every national election since 2016 has shown: In many places, a close connection with Trump is a political liability.

As the 2024 Republican presidential primary begins to take shape, Trump – who hosted a tele-rally for Walker on Monday night – is already facing potential intra-party rivals emboldened by 2022’s results. A Walker loss would amplify calls for the party to turn elsewhere for leadership.

Kemp looks to one-up Trump one more time

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp kept his distance from Walker as he coasted to reelection in a rematch with Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. Since his victory, though, Kemp has much more fully embraced his party’s Senate nominee – despite the governor’s bad blood with Trump.

Kemp has appeared with Walker at rallies. He has cut television ads for the former University of Georgia football star. And he has loaned the get-out-the-vote operation that helped propel him to victory to a Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC, seeking to help Walker with the ground game his campaign lacked.

If Walker wins, it will be Kemp’s direct involvement in helping to convince the suburbanites who split their tickets in November, rather than Trump’s occasional support from a distance, that played the most important role.

Georgia, a swing state? We’ll see.

With states like Florida and Ohio turning a deeper shade of red, Democrats are desperate to broaden their national playing field. And Georgia appears to be their prime target following the 2020 election, when Biden won the presidency and Warnock and Jon Ossoff flipped the state’s Senate seats. Biden even suggested moving up its presidential primary to fourth on the calendar in his recent letter to the Democratic National Committee.

That theory – or hope – faces a significant test on Tuesday.

With Kemp emerging as Walker’s surrogate of choice during the homestretch, the results of the runoff could be viewed at litmus test for Georgia Democrats. Specifically, whether the state has emerged as a true toss-up.

If Warnock wins despite Kemp’s willingness to lend his personal popularity and turnout apparatus to Walker, Democrats might actually be on to something. Though many in both parties would agree Walker has been a less-than-stellar nominee, he now has the firm, outspoken support of the state and national GOP behind him. If that’s not enough to put him over the top, Republicans’ problems in Georgia are likely down to something more lasting than “candidate quality” issues.

On the flip side, a Walker victory would – for many of the same reasons – point precisely in the opposite direction. Georgia Republicans this year notched a clean sweep of statewide positions, with the exception, so far, of the US Senate seat still up for grabs. If Walker wins, despite all the concerns around his campaign, it will underscore the GOP’s abiding strength in the Peach State – as long as Trump is out of sight and mind.

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