A week-long early voting period begins in some Georgia counties on Saturday, when Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker enter a week-and-a-half sprint to their Dec. 6 runoff after Thanksgiving.
Unlike the 2021 runoff, control of the Senate is not at stake as Democrats have already won 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris is giving the party a crucial vote.
But the stakes remain high: a Warnock win would give Democrats an outright majority, rather than requiring the power-sharing deal now in place. Democrats would have majority on committees, which would allow them to more easily advance President Joe Biden’s nominees.
The Georgia Supreme Court awarded Warnock a victory on Wednesday, allowing counties to offer an early vote on Saturday. Democrats said they expected as many as 22 counties to do so — some in densely populated areas around Atlanta, including DeKalb and Fulton, as well as Chatham County, home of Savannah.
That decision followed a legal battle sparked by Georgian Foreign Minister Brad Raffensperger’s interpretation of the 2021 election law. He said the new law limits voting on the weekend immediately after the bank holiday.
This 2021 law halved the runoff election time frame to four weeks and limited the early voting window to at least five days, instead of the minimum 16 days that were in place when Democrats won two state Senate runoffs in January 2021.
Warnock continues to outperform Walker as they head into the final stretch.
Warnock raised nearly $52.2 million from Oct. 20 to Nov. 16, a period that spanned the end of the general election and roughly the first week of the runoff. Walker raised $20.9 million during that time, according to his campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission. Warnock ended the period with more than $29.7 million in the bank, more than triple the $9.8 million remaining in his rival’s coffers.
Warnock will bring in a high-profile Democratic deputy: Former President Barack Obama is scheduled to travel to Atlanta on Thursday for a rally ahead of the final day of early voting.
So far, Obama is the only former or current president who will visit Georgia before the runoff.
Neither President Joe Biden, to whom Walker’s campaign has sought to tie Warnock, nor former President Donald Trump, who was in office when Republicans lost two Senate runoffs two years ago, have planned trips to the state.
Although Trump allies, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have campaigned for Walker, the former president himself has not campaigned with the candidate he recruited.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, are flocking to Walker, with the Senate Leadership Fund, the super-PAC that has allied itself with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, pumping more than $10 million into the race since the general election.
Adding to the fresh influx of outside spending, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who was driving for re-election earlier this month, made his first appearance with Walker on the trail after stiffly arming the former soccer star all fall.
Kemp defeated a key Trump-backed challenger in May and then overtook Walker in the general election by more than 200,000 votes – a mark of both his crossover appeal to moderate Democrats and Walker’s trouble consolidating Republicans.
Still, Democrats said they doubted Kemp could save Walker in a runoff where Walker is the only Republican on the ballot.
“There are tons of people who voted for Raphael Warnock and Brian Kemp,” said Jason Carter, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
He called Warnock a “unique figure” and noted that he “received more votes than Herschel Walker and more votes than any other Democrat.”
“People appreciate him. And they see him first as Raphael Warnock and then as his political party and all that other stuff,” Carter said.
A new potential focus in the runoff election emerged on Wednesday. The Georgia Supreme Court also reinstated the state’s six-week abortion ban in a separate lawsuit.
It was a political victory for the Republicans who enacted and defended this ban in court, but one that could come with a political price by easing the backlash to the Roe v. Wade through the Supreme Court, which energized Democrats and won moderate voters their favor on the party’s path to a surprisingly strong showing in this year’s midterm elections.
According to CNN exit polls, 28% of Georgian voters in the midterm election said abortion was the most important issue of their vote – second only to inflation at 37%.
Of those who named abortion as the most important issue, 77% supported Warnock, compared with 21% who voted for Walker – a reversal of inflation, an issue Walker favored by a 45 percentage point margin.
Fifty-three percent of Georgia voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and of those voters, 75 percent supported Warnock. Of the 43% who said it should be illegal in all or most cases, 87% supported Walker.
Both parties pumped more than $40 million into television advertising in the runoff. According to ad-tracking firm AdImpact, Democratic groups have spent nearly $25 million, while GOP groups have spent nearly $16 million.
In an effort to unite the Republican factions, a Walker Super PAC sends out mailers promoting Kemp’s support and trying to link Warnock to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “You stopped Stacey. Now reject Warnock,” they read.
“Who do you want to fight for in the United States Senate? Do you want a guy like Herschel Walker who represents our values, or do you want a guy who sides with Joe Biden 96% of the time?” Kemp said, borrowing a confidante at a rally in Cobb County last weekend Attack from Walker.
Kemp also reiterates this line of attack in a new television spot launched by SLF. The governor and McConnell’s group have also joined forces to end the voting effort. SLF boosts Kemp’s state operation to help Walker with $2 million cash injection.
Warnock’s campaign is also trying to win over Republicans who actually preferred Kemp to Trump.
A new ad from the Warnock campaign shows a woman who says she voted for Kemp this year and describes herself as a lifelong Republican, but goes on to say she won’t support Walker in the runoff because of his “lack of character”. .
Warnock has also campaigned in what should be one of Walker’s safest areas: his hometown. At an event in Wrightsville, where Walker played his high school football, Warnock urged voters to separate the sports hero from the political candidate.
“I saw what your favorite son was doing on the soccer field. I don’t mind giving credit where credit is due. This brother could knock you out on this football field. He caused a stir and did a lot for the great University of Georgia. And he deserves credit for that,” Warnock said. “But tonight we’re in a different field.”
At the same time, the Republican has faced some backlash over an ad of his own — along with University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who has previously performed with Walker and has competed with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who has become the focus of debate over participation by trans women in sports and has often been attacked in conservative media.
“I worked so hard for more than a decade. Four in the morning practice being the best. But in my senior year, I was forced to compete against a natural male,” Gaines says in the ad.
The ad was released in the days after a gunman allegedly targeted the LGBTQ community at a Colorado gay club. One of the five people killed was a trans man.