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Breaking down the Georgia Senate runoff

GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker shares a moment with a supporter during his Evict Warnock bus tour in Canton, Ga., on Nov. 10. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

For the second time in two years, Georgia voters will decide who represents them in the Senate after Election Day. This time, the stakes in its runoff election are lower, with the Senate majority not in the balance after Democrats already got their 50th vote.

But that doesn’t mean the result isn’t significant, for a few reasons:

All of which gives both sides plenty of motivation to win this race on Dec. 6. But how might these power dynamics influence the outcome? And what other factors could decide the race between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican Herschel Walker?

The 2020 Georgia runoffs weren’t the first time in recent years in which a Senate race held beyond Election Day was pivotal for control in Washington — nor was 2020 the first time in which Georgia played such a role.

In 2008, Democrats narrowly forced Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) into a runoff and had high hopes, given Barack Obama’s resounding national victory on Election Day and the prospect of a historic 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority if Democrats won both Georgia and a contested Senate race in Minnesota. But Chambliss wound up routing his Democratic opponent by 15 percentage points in the runoff.

Thirteen months later, in early 2010, Democrats did have a 60-vote majority but needed to win the special election for the late senator Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat to keep it. Republican Scott Brown’s shocking win in the dark-blue state ensured that 60 votes was a short-lived luxury.

Each result suggested that the prospect of such Democratic dominance was firmly rejected by voters. In both cases, turnout figures indicated that conservative voters were much more enthusiastic to vote, relative to the last general election. In Georgia in 2008, turnout in conservative and more rural counties outpaced Democratic strongholds. In Massachusetts in 2010, the picture was very similar.

The 2020 runoffs presented a different prospect, because it was a bare Senate majority rather than 60 votes that was on the line. But Democrats had won both the presidency and the House, meaning voters there could have assured split control of Washington by voting for the GOP. Instead, they sent two more Democratic senators to Washington and gave that party the trifecta of control — thanks in large part to Black voters forming a bigger portion of runoff turnout than in the general election.

So what does this mean for the 2022 runoff? The first thing to note is that 2020 was in some ways the exception to the rule. There is lots of evidence that Americans like split government and vote accordingly, mostly as evidenced by how poorly the president’s party performs in midterm elections. Perhaps that motivation was still there, but other variables overrode it — variables such as Donald Trump’s quixotic effort to overturn his own loss by baselessly calling our election system into question. What we do know was that GOP turnout lagged in the runoff, which was both unusual for Georgia and contrary to much of the conventional wisdom.

On Dec. 6 Georgia voters will decide who represents them in the Senate between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican Herschel Walker. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

The question for the 2022 runoffs is how much 2020 suggests that Georgia has fundamentally changed in its approach to runoffs and whether certain variables render these power dynamics less important to voters.

The 2022 runoff doesn’t present the same power-dynamic questions because Democrats have already won the Senate and because control of Washington is already split, thanks to the GOP narrowly retaking the House. So to the extent that any voter desires Republicans to have a seat at the table, they already do, and perhaps that hurts Walker when it comes to motivating GOP voters.

That goes double given that some conservative voters were already having to hold their nose to support Walker and his troubled candidacy. Walker is struggling after a series of ugly revelations about his family life, and he trailed Warnock in the first round of voting by about a percentage point even as eight other GOP statewide candidates all won outright — by an average of more than seven percentage points. Walker got more than 200,000 fewer votes than Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who won reelection by 7.5 points.

But another way to look at this is that Walker would seem to have more room to grow his vote share, given that the state leaned Republican in this election overall. Kemp, for one, is doing more to help him after shying away from his candidacy before. On top of that, add the fact that conservative voters have a last chance to register their discontent with the Biden administration — and that Democrats don’t have a Senate majority to vote for, either — and perhaps Georgia will return to its demonstrated history of Republicans overperforming in runoffs.

What’s clear is that Republicans will be wishing Walker weren’t their standard-bearer. While he perhaps wasn’t the proven liability that some other Republicans running in key Senate races were, he did underperform his party by a significant clip, and there’s little question that the party would be in much better shape if it had a steadier candidate. Even in recent days, Walker has dealt with the revelation that he took a tax exemption that meant claiming his home in Texas as his “principal residence.”

The only quality poll on the runoff so far doesn’t shed a ton of light. The bipartisan AARP poll shows Warnock ahead by four points, which is both within the margin of error and similar to the poll the organization conducted in July (Warnock plus-three). But it’s notable that the poll’s sample features a similar if slightly more favorable electorate (42-34 Republican) than the general election (41-35 Republican, according to exit polls), and it doesn’t appear to help Walker much.

Democrats got a boost when state courts recently reversed a decision from the secretary of state and allowed early voting this past Saturday, which could help Democrats by allowing them to bank more votes before the Dec. 6 runoff date.

But we’ll have to see which party is better at getting their side out for a less-consequential election, and whether the results look more like 2020 (which would favor Democrats) or like the rest of the history of these kinds of races (which have favored Republicans).

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