Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, and Herschel Walker are hoping to convince voters that their race for the U.S. Senate matters even though Georgians will not determine party control. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
With Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada going to Democrats, the party will be assured of a slim 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 Sen. Jon Ossoff won their runoffs in 2021, they allowed Democrats to maintain a 50-50 partisan divide, handing the tiebreaking vote to Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The open-ended question on this is whether or not Democrats can recreate the 2020 coalition,” said Daniel Paul Franklin, associate professor emeritus of political science at Georgia State. “And without the Senate on the line, that’s one strike against, because the election is not the future of the world, the future of the country. There are some arcane issues involving committee membership in the Senate, but that’s pretty arcane.”
But the candidates and their supporters on the campaign trail are working to get out the vote and arguing that who Georgia sends to Washington is still important. Speaking in Atlanta Tuesday, Warnock said Ossoff needs a partner in DC regardless of the party split next year.
“Even when you have two senators of the same party representing the same state, it is not often that they work as closely as Jon Ossoff and I do together. A lot of times, there’s a kind of competition thing going on, and I tease him about the whole senior and junior thing, but he and I are friends and we’re colleagues.”
Warnock was joking about the fact that Ossoff is the senior senator from Georgia even though they were elected at the same time and Ossoff is nearly 20 years younger than Warnock. Ossoff holds that distinction because of a Senate rule that states if two senators have equal claim to the title, the one whose last name comes first alphabetically is considered senior.
“We have discovered that we can get more done when we work for Georgia together. And so that’s part of what’s at stake in this election, because Georgia’s got something good going with two Democratic senators, and we have 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 he said senators from blue states disagreed with.
At a Tuesday night rally in Jefferson, Walker made a similar argument – with Republicans maintaining control of the state government, they will need a partner in Washington, he said.
“But what’s happening is this guy we have in office is not working with the governor, not working with the people like Tyler (Harper, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner-elect) on federal level because what he’s doing, all of them are rowing the boat in one direction, he’s rowing in a different direction because he’s voting for all this stuff that don’t match Georgia.”
Walker gave the example of the “green agenda,” which he said Georgia is not ready for. Gov. Brian Kemp has touted investments in the state from electric vehicle manufacturers like Rivian and Hyundai.
Warnock won his seat after defeating then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff following the 2020 election.
If they want to avoid a repeat of that loss, they’ll need a new message, said Jason Shepherd, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University and former chair of the Cobb County GOP.
“Ossoff and Warnock won the special election in the first place – along with Lin Wood and Donald Trump saying don’t trust the voting – but they also focused their message more on issues that Georgia voters cared about, while Republicans were talking about the Senate, ‘Save the Senate, save America,” he said, referencing a line repeated in Loeffler’s ads.
“The truth is all politics is local, and runoffs especially are about who’s going to represent the issues or values that the majority of Georgia voters care about,” Shepherd said. “And if they elected Brian Kemp and Republicans across all statewide offices to government for the next four years, I think that shows a lot of where most Georgia voters are.”
Kemp received about 200,000 more votes than Walker, whose campaign has been roiled by accusations of a lack of fitness for office, repeated lies about his past accomplishments and abuse of family members. Kemp ran this year largely on his accomplishments during his first term, with a focus on the economy, which Georgians have listed as their top concern. Walker’s campaign has been more focused on cultural issues like transgender sports participation and “wokeness” in government.
Kemp’s name will not be on the ballot next month, but the governor is reportedly lending some of his staff to Walker for the runoff, and he’s hoping to lend his popularity as well in a planned joint appearance over the weekend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
Democrats’ messages to voters will talk about the balance of the Senate, said Brenda Lopez Romero, a former Democratic state lawmaker who now chairs the Gwinnett County Democratic Party.
“The Senate is still being determined by Georgia,” she said. “It’s absolutely still important that we win that 51st vote. It would help in negotiations, particularly when we have maybe one or two of the dissenting senators that haven’t been helpful to push forward on different legislative agendas. This Senate seat is still crucial, not dangling at that 50-50 line doesn’t make this election any less important.”
How candidates reach voters is just as important as their message, Lopez Romero said, and Democrats will be focused on speaking with as many voters face-to-face as they can during the short election season.
One of the benefits of face-to-face interactions with voters is you can be sure they know where, when and how to vote. That’s especially important in a quick runoff, said Lopez Romero.
“We’re highly encouraging people to vote in person and vote early, if at all possible, even if it is that one week of early voting that we have,” she said. “We are concerned simply because of the condensed time, mail-in ballots being able to be mailed to voters and the voters being able to deliver them, whether that be via mail or drop boxes in, in the time required. And also, of course, with some of the issues of rejection of absentee ballots.”
Warnock and Democratic allies are suing the state in an attempt to force Georgia to allow counties to hold early voting on Saturday, Nov. 26, arguing that not offering Saturday voting makes it harder for those who work weekdays to cast a ballot.
Some metro Atlanta counties including Gwinnett will offer a day of Sunday early voting, Lopez Romero said.
“But the reality is that it’s always tough running reelections, and part of the tactics that have been used by the Republican-controlled state legislature, to really disincentivize people to vote is precisely making this type of condensed runoff. But we know what works isn’t only just the message, but how we reach voters. And I think one of the key things that we’re doing is going out, knocking on doors, canvassing our neighborhoods and our neighbors, and reminding them how important it is to come out and vote.”
With Kemp’s help, Walker’s team will likely be just as focused on knocking doors and calling supporters, Shepherd said.
“I think the emphasis is the ground game. I think that’s going to be more important than TV commercials. I think at this point, your average Georgian who’s not inclined to go vote in the runoff, that’s just gonna be noise to them.”
Early voting is set to begin Nov. 28, and voters should check their county board of registrar’s office for details on times and locations.
Former President Donald Trump is ready for another go at the White House, and he made his intentions official Tuesday in an announcement from his Florida home.
That could put the race in a new light, Franklin said.
“I think Trump has done the Democrats an enormous 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 re-elected in 2024, in part because of his continuing lies about the 2020 election results.
“Of course, that is something that we can highlight to a greater extent, and the fact that he would be, again, a very devastating individual to our democracy generally, absolutely, is a message that we can use, but quite frankly, at no point is having him on the ballot a benefit to our country,” she said.
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