|Dear Readers: Join us Wednesday at 2 p.m. eastern for a Twitter Spaces featuring J. Miles Coleman and Kyle Kondik of the Crystal Ball along with our Center for Politics colleague Carah Ong Whaley in which we’ll recap Tuesday’s Georgia runoff and tie a bow on the 2022 election. If you can’t tune in live, we’ll release the Spaces as an episode of our “Politics is Everything” podcast, which is available on major podcast providers.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Georgia’s Senate runoff moves from Toss-up to Leans Democratic on the eve of tomorrow’s election.
— Herschel Walker (R) needs a big Election Day showing to overcome what should be a decent-sized lead for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in the early vote.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating change
Previewing the Georgia runoff
It’s probably fair to say that Georgia has been one of the more Trump-averse states. In 2016, the Peach State was one of only 8 states where then-candidate Donald Trump underperformed the late John McCain’s percentage margin from 8 years earlier. When Trump was up for reelection, he became the first Republican presidential nominee to lose the state in 28 years.
This year, Georgia voters rewarded many of their prominent incumbents who defied the former president. In May, Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) demolished a Trump-aligned primary challenge while Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who declined to “find” extra votes for Trump after the 2020 election, scored an outright win in his GOP primary. At the time, the Georgia primary was, arguably, the worst night for Trump since he left office.
Last month, Raffensperger led the state ticket, winning by nearly 10 points (a remarkable margin, considering the state’s polarization) while Kemp’s margin was only a little bit smaller. On the other end of the ticket, former professional football player Herschel Walker was the only statewide Republican who failed to win outright — he finished about 38,000 votes, or almost exactly a percentage point, behind Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA). In addition to his association with Trump, Walker’s candidacy has been beset by scandals. By contrast, Warnock has run close to a perfect campaign, as some of our state contacts have put it. But Warnock earned 49.4%, putting him in a familiar situation: a runoff.
With the runoff set for tomorrow, most indicators point to a Warnock advantage. In fact, considering the national environment that ultimately materialized this cycle — one where Senate Democrats exceeded expectations — it would not be shocking if Warnock ends up improving on the 51%-49% margin he notched almost 2 years ago.
Since November’s election, a handful of runoff polls have been released. Warnock has posted small leads in nearly all of them. In the initial round, polling aggregates slightly overstated Walker, suggesting that he’d place first but would take below 50%.
Democrats are also outspending Republicans — an internal Walker memo claims that their side had been outspent roughly 2-to-1 since November. While the race hasn’t been as expensive as the 2021 contest between then-Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) and now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Georgia is again set to host the most expensive Senate race of the cycle.
Finally, what may be the most concrete evidence for a Warnock advantage is the composition of the early vote. Despite an abbreviated timeframe, the runoff has seen robust early turnout. As of Sunday night, close to 1.9 million Georgians had cast an early ballot, a number that is 47% of the total count that last month’s general election saw (this is mostly in-person early voting but that tally also includes some mail-in votes).
As we have mentioned before, Georgia lacks partisan registration. But given the voting patterns in the South, the racial breakdown of the electorate is often informative. A few states over, for example, early voting statistics in his 2019 runoff showed that Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) was on track to secure reelection. With early in-person voting concluded in Georgia, the runoff electorate currently sits at 32% Black by composition. That number represents an increase not just from November’s pre-Election Day electorate (29%) but also from that of the 2020 general election (28%) and the January 2021 runoff (31%). Notice that last cycle, it was a positive sign for Democrats that the Black share inched up from the general election to the runoff — that pattern has again taken hold.
In November, with a somewhat less friendly pre-Election Day electorate, Warnock carried the early vote (in-person plus mail-in ballots) by a 54%-44% spread. Walker finished within a point of Warnock overall by carrying the Election Day vote by a slightly larger 56%-41% margin, although only 36% of the total votes were cast the day of.
As Republican pollster John Couvillon summed up in his analysis of the early vote, the Walker campaign has a “tall order” to fill tomorrow. We are inclined to agree with his conclusion. Keep in mind, Warnock only finished six-tenths of a percentage point below 50% last month. As we see it, with the Black share of the early vote up a few notches from what we saw ahead of November’s election, Walker starts out even deeper in the hole. Walker may also suffer from one bigger-picture factor that is out of his control: With Democrats set to retain their Senate majority regardless of Georgia’s outcome, he may have a harder time rallying Republicans.
Even with the available information pointing to Warnock, Georgia is still a fundamentally competitive state, so we can’t rule out a Walker win. As we’ve suggested, Walker will need a strong Election Day vote tomorrow. In the 2021 runoffs, Republicans outperformed Donald Trump’s showing in the Election Day vote (although Democrats had obviously built up enough of an early lead to withstand that surge).
While we can see most swing voters being locked into their choices by this point, Gov. Kemp has tried to boost Walker — for most of the year, the pair didn’t explicitly campaign as a ticket. We do wonder, though, if Kemp is simply “going through the motions.” Fresh off his comfortable reelection, the governor has received some presidential buzz — with that in mind, he’d surely like to look like a “team player.” Whatever his reasoning may be, Republicans are hoping Kemp’s endorsement carries weight with the roughly 200,000 voters who supported him but snubbed Walker in last month’s contest.
If Warnock ends up winning tomorrow, we can all agree on one thing: He will have certainly earned a full term. Over the span of 2 years, Warnock ran a gauntlet of 4 high-stakes races. In 2020, his campaign successfully navigated a jungle primary, then, along with Ossoff, delivered the Senate to Democrats with a pair of runoff wins. Last month, though he fell short of a majority, Warnock was the only statewide Democrat in Georgia who finished ahead of a Republican. In another closely-watched runoff, a refrain at Warnock rallies has been “one more time.”
It’s hard to find a perfect parallel to Warnock’s trek, but this reminds us of another occupant of this seat: the late Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. In 1992, Coverdell placed first in a competitive primary, then beat out future Rep. Bob Barr (R) by a point in a GOP runoff. In November, he finished less than 2 points behind then-Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) but prevailed 51%-49% in a runoff. With a base in the suburbs and a well-known friendship with the Bush family, Coverdell was usually a party-line Republican, but had some moderate tendencies. As it happens, this is exactly the type of demographic that has trended away from Republicans in Georgia. While turnout is paramount in runoffs, persuasion can also matter — if Warnock wins tomorrow, it may be due, in part, to the Coverdell vote.