The Big Question the Georgia Senate Race Will Answer

As the second-most expensive Senate race in American history approaches its climax on Tuesday, we are about to learn the answer to a question the two sides in Georgia have spent more than $400 million trying to answer: Can a former football star learn just enough about politics to oust one of the most skilled communicators in Congress?

Or has Senator Raphael Warnock been sufficiently nimble in navigating a difficult political climate for Democrats to stave off his ouster?

In other words, who was right? The Republicans who warned this spring that Herschel Walker was too untested and too laden with personal baggage to win, or former President Donald Trump, who bet that sports celebrity and national political headwinds would be decisive?

There is ample evidence for either proposition; Georgia is very much a purple state. Their first bout ended with Warnock just shy of a majority, forcing Tuesday’s runoff election. Fewer than 40,000 votes separated the two men on Election Day.

Since then, Warnock has outspent Walker, his Republican opponent, by more than two to one — running 19 unique ads compared with just six for Walker.

The campaign has grown sharply negative and increasingly personal in its closing weeks, with a growing focus on Walker’s rambling speeches and his treatment of women. This weekend, NBC News broadcast an interview with Cheryl Parsa, a former romantic partner of Walker’s who accused him of threatening her with physical violence.

Walker denies being violent, and he has proved remarkably resilient in light of all the information Democrats have arrayed against him. Polls show no sign that his support has collapsed.

To sort through these and other themes, I chatted with Maya King, an Atlanta-based politics reporter for The New York Times:

It’s pretty clear that a lot of Republicans have come to regret the fact that Herschel Walker is their nominee. What are some of the ways they’ve tried to compensate for his deficiencies as a candidate?

The biggest thing Republicans have done is call in national figures to serve as “validators” of sorts for Walker. It seems that Georgia Republicans’ biggest issue with their candidate is his inability to clearly explain the policies he might champion or deliver a campaign message straying from cultural red-meat issues that appeal only to his hyper-conservative base. That’s why you see him flanked by other Republican senators like Lindsey Graham or Ted Cruz in some of his television interviews.

They have also campaigned alongside him quite a bit. At a rally on Sunday, Senators John Kennedy of Louisiana and Tim Scott of South Carolina gave remarks. And while neither Donald Trump nor Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has come to Georgia to campaign with Walker, they have attached their names to fund-raising emails for him.

What to Know About the Georgia Senate Runoff

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Another runoff in Georgia. The contest between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff. It will be the state’s third Senate runoff in two years. Here’s a look at the race:

What is a runoff election? A runoff is essentially a rematch, held when none of the original candidates meet the criteria for winning. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election, but Mr. Warnock and Mr. Walker both failed to clear the 50 percent threshold in the Nov. 8 election.

How long will the process take? Two years ago, Georgia was the site of two Senate runoffs that weren’t decided until January 2021, but a new election law shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four. This year’s runoff will be on Dec. 6, with early voting that began on Nov. 28, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Why does Georgia have a runoff law? Georgia’s runoff law was created in the 1960s as a way to preserve white political power in a majority-white state and diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to a report by the U.S. Interior Department.

What are the stakes? Even though Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured that the party would hold the Senate, a victory by Mr. Warnock would give Democrats an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

Where does the race stand now? Both sides are pouring money into ads and courting national allies for visits. But the outcome will probably come down to one big factor: turnout. With the shortened window for runoffs, the parties are investing heavily to mobilize voters during the early voting period.

Finally, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of Gov. Brian Kemp to Walker’s campaign. Because he performed so well in November with the moderate conservatives whom Walker needs to win on Tuesday, Walker’s allies see the governor as a vital messenger to that slice of the electorate.

People in Atlanta voted early on Friday in the state’s runoff election for Senate.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

The main theme of the Walker campaign’s case against Warnock is that he votes often with President Biden. That’s obviously pretty potent. How does Warnock talk about Biden, or what are some of the ways he has tried to deflect that attack?

For a stretch of the general-election campaign, I frequently asked Warnock if he’d accept a visit from President Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris at any point. Warnock’s refrain remained the same every time: that he’s “focused on the people of Georgia.”

But in his stump speeches, he goes a little more in depth. He talks about his work with Republican senators like Cruz and Tommy Tuberville on policy. He is also not shy about telling his supporters how he pushed Biden to do more on things like voting rights and student loan debt.

It’s a delicate dance. But he has clearly recognized the president’s less-than-ideal standing in Georgia and has aimed to craft a message around it.

There’s been a long-running debate among analysts about just how much the shift toward Democrats has been driven by political organizing of Black voters by figures like Stacey Abrams, and how much of the party’s gains can be attributed to the growth of other groups like Asian Americans. How does the Warnock campaign think about it?

Georgia’s demographics have changed rapidly and are only continuing to shift younger and more racially diverse, especially around Atlanta.

Warnock’s calculus has always been centered on running up Black support as much as he possibly can, not just around Atlanta but also in more rural parts of the state that tend to skew more conservative.

But Asian American and Latino voters are two groups that the Warnock team knows can make the difference in a really tight race. So Warnock’s campaign has certainly borrowed from the playbook of Abrams and other voter-mobilization groups to know where to find these voters and how to turn them back out to the polls.

Governor Kemp’s popularity seems to have a lot to do with his economic record and the perception that during the pandemic, he took a gamble to open the state back up at a time when many other governors were being more cautious. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Walker hasn’t talked about the pandemic much, has he?

More on the Georgia Senate Runoff

  • How Walker Could Win: Despite the steady stream of tough headlines for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate, he could prevail. Here’s how.
  • Warnock’s Record: An electric car plant outside Savannah could be the central achievement for Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. But Republicans aren’t giving him credit.
  • Mixed Emotions: The contest might have been a showcase of Black political power in the Deep South. But many Black voters say Mr. Walker’s turbulent campaign has marred the moment.
  • Insulin Prices: The issue is nowhere near as contentious as just about everything else raised in the race. But in a state with a high diabetes rate, it has proved a resonant topic.

If he has, it hasn’t been a message that’s particularly helpful to him — I’ll hark back to the stories of him promoting an anti-Covid spray and refusing to disclose his vaccination status.

That’s part of, again, why Kemp has proved to be such an important surrogate for Walker: because he knows how to quickly and clearly deliver a policy message without alienating or confusing voters.

Walker uses a lot of religious language on the stump. He calls himself a “warrior for God,” for instance. Has that hurt him with the center of the Georgia electorate at all, or does that play well across the board?

I don’t think it’s hurt him much. Georgia is a heavily Christian state. We also know that white evangelicals overwhelmingly support his candidacy. I haven’t heard much grumbling from the middle about this.

And, of course, we have to note that his opponent leads one of the most iconic pulpits in Georgia, if not the country, as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once presided. So religion is a big theme in this entire race.

What to read

  • The Supreme Court’s conservative majority seems prepared to rule that a graphic designer in Colorado has a First Amendment right to refuse to create websites celebrating same-sex weddings based on her Christian faith despite a state law that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. Adam Liptak has more.

  • Katie Glueck writes about how Harlem, where Raphael Warnock trained as a seminary student and pastor, shaped his faith and politics.

  • Arizona certified its midterm election results on Monday, after some Republican candidates had tried to sow doubts about the outcome. The race for attorney general remains too close to call, however, and is heading to a recount.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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