Twenty-eight days after voters in most of the country cast their ballots in the 2022 midterm elections, Georgians head to the polls on Tuesday for a second time to decide the final major election contest of the year.
(Well, not all Georgians are heading to the polls. Mostly just the Republicans. But we’ll get to that in a bit.)
The race pits Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock against Republican Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia football legend who won his party’s nomination in no small part due to the backing of former President Donald Trump and has faced scandal after scandal during his campaign.
The winner will get a six-year term in the Senate. Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is finishing the term of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019 because of health concerns.
Warnock is a slight favorite in the race, which will not immediately change partisan control of the Senate. Democrats won 50 seats in November and will control Congress’ upper chamber, regardless of the outcome. But adding a seat would have benefits for Democrats in the short and long term.
Here are three things you should know about the election.
Why Warnock Is The Favorite
Georgia is now one of the nation’s core swing states, and almost every federal election there is going to be close and heavily contested. Over the past week, however, a number of election forecasters — including the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and Inside Elections — have labeled Warnock the favorite.
The credible public surveys of the race mostly show Warnock winning. Even more so, the state just conducted a massive poll of nearly 4 million people that got turnout exactly right. That survey — it was called the Nov. 8 general election — had Warnock with a 1-point lead over Walker. There’s little reason to believe voter preferences or the political environment have shifted much since then.
In Georgia, like many other states, voting is now bifurcated along partisan lines. Democrats tend to vote early and by mail, and Republicans tend to vote on Election Day. There is no direct comparison for this election — the 2020 runoff won by Warnock and now-Sen. Jon Ossoff took place in January and under different rules — and making concrete judgments based on early voting is impossible. But the available evidence does not show major GOP gains.
“We saw record voter turnout during the early vote period,” Warnock told a crowd at a brewery in Atlanta on Monday. “But don’t underestimate the opposition.”
According to numbers compiled by Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Black turnout stands at 79.9% of what it was during the general election early voting period, and overall turnout is 73.6% of what it was during the general election. An increase in the share of Black voters is unmistakably good news for Warnock. (Not all the news from early voting is as encouraging for Democrats, but we’ll get there.)
Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has aired ads featuring GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in an effort to persuade voters who backed Warnock and Kemp in the first round of voting to switch their minds. Walker, however, has continued to face a barrage of terrible news cycles: an absurd speech about vampires and werewolves; former President Barack Obama mocking him about that speech; multiple ex-girlfriends speaking to the media about his history of domestic violence; and even a reminder he didn’t really live in Georgia before running for office.
Finally, Democrats have had a substantial advantage with television advertising. Democrats have spent more than $50 million, while Republicans have spent just $25.5 million.
“Simply put, we’re being outspent 3 to 1 by Warnock, and we’re being outspent nearly 2 to 1 by outside groups,” Walker’s campaign manager, Scott Paradise, wrote in a memo to outside groups obtained by NBC News last week. “We need help.”
Democratic outside groups have spent $30 million, according to AdImpact, compared with $15.8 million for GOP outside groups. Warnock’s advantage over Walker is even larger, and goes further because of the lower advertising costs for candidates. He’s spent $27.3 million to Walker’s $11.5 million.
Warnock, by the way, is likely to have raised more directly into his campaign account than any U.S. senator in history. Between his campaigns in 2020 and 2022, he’s raised more than $301 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Why Democrats Aren’t Sleeping Easily
Despite all that, this race is not a lock for Warnock. In 2020, Republicans led in the first round of voting, only for Warnock and Ossoff to pull off victories. The GOP turn toward Election-Day voting means the predictive value of the early vote is limited. And there are some trends from early voting that are keeping Democrats up at night.
“This is a highly competitive race,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Historically, Republicans tend to show up on Election Day, so Democratic turnout needs to stay strong in order to maximize Rev. Warnock’s path to victory.”
The biggest worry for Democrats may be the slower rate of return for mail ballots, which will favor Warnock. The abbreviated time period for the runoff election — with the week of Thanksgiving smack dab in the middle — meant many of Georgia’s 98 counties did not send out mail ballots until relatively late, and voters will have less time to return them. Only 75% to 80% of ballots are set to be returned, according to a Democratic source, compared with a 90% rate in the general election.
Democratic data analysts have also found a large number of GOP voters who voted early in the general election, but have not yet cast a ballot in the runoff. Democrats fear those voters could be casting their ballot on Tuesday in the runoff, meaning the wave of red votes backing Walker on the final day of voting could be even stronger.
Walker is trying to increase those numbers further by nationalizing the election.
“If you don’t vote, you’re going to get more of Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden,” Walker said during an appearance on Fox News with conservative personality Sean Hannity.
Another concern: the age of the electorate. The same data that show Black voters turning out at higher rates than in the general election also show younger people — a major area of concern for Democrats — turning out at comparatively lower rates.
What’s At Stake
It’s easy to think relatively little is at stake on Tuesday, since Democratic control of the Senate is assured. But there’s actually a big difference between a 51-seat Democratic majority and a 50-seat Democratic majority.
If Democrats get 51 seats, they are guaranteed a majority on all of the Senate’s committees, which process nominations and mark up legislation. Right now, those committees are equally split between Democrats and Republicans, even though Democrats control the full chamber. That means advancing nominees — including crucial judicial nominees — takes more of the Senate’s limited floor time.
“Every time we have a tie vote in committee, it delays things for a week,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in an email to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s members, encouraging them to donate to Warnock’s campaign or sign up for a phone bank. “You have to go to the floor, you have to get the time, and you have to bring Vice President Kamala Harris there and do what’s called a motion to discharge out of committee. If we have 51 seats, Republicans can’t obstruct key nominations.”
Schumer also said a 51-seat majority would help Democrats control the policy conversation when battling a GOP-controlled House — and strongly implied it will allow Democrats to pay slightly less attention to the demands of Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
“Especially with a Republican House, this will allow us to set the national agenda on things like minimum wage, child care, the child tax credit, challenging big monopolies, creating more jobs, taking on Big Oil to tackle climate change, ensuring legal contraception, protecting democracy, and so much more,” Schumer wrote. “No one senator has a veto. When you have 50 senators, any one senator can say, ‘I’m not voting for it unless I get this, this, or this.’ With 51, we can go bolder and quicker ― to show Americans what Democrats stand for.”
Lastly, Senate majorities are not built in a single election cycle. Democrats are facing an absolutely brutal 2024 election, when they will have to defend seven senators holding states Trump won at least once, with their best pickup opportunity coming in red-tinted Texas. If the party wants to have any hope of governing in a second Biden term, they may need to start with 51 seats.
Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.