Five things to watch as voting begins in Georgia Senate runoff

Early voting in Georgia’s runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and GOP hopeful Herschel Walker kicked off over the weekend, marking the final stretch in a race that will determine whether Democrats expand their majority in the upper chamber or Republicans maintain a 50-50 split.

The runoff, which started bitter and has grown only more contentious, has the two candidates within a close margin. Warnock led Walker by only 37,000 votes on election night.

Now, as all eyes once again turn to Georgia, both candidates have ramped up advertisements and their fundraising ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff.

Here are five things to watch as early voting kicks off in the Peach State.

Turnout

After a Georgia Supreme Court ruling allowed early voting to begin on Saturday, turnout is already soaring.

As of Monday morning, data from the Georgia secretary of state’s website showed more than 181,000 Georgians had already cast their ballots — and a majority of those voters were Black, a key Democratic voting bloc.

On Sunday, Warnock’s campaign director Quentin Fulks said Georgians had voted more than on any Sunday in the 2022 general election, the 2021 runoff — where Warnock first won — and both the 2020 and 2018 general elections.

The record turnout follows a midterm pattern, where Georgia saw more than 230,000 votes cast on the first day of early voting for the general election.

Warnock has encouraged his supporters to hit the polls early, tweeting on Sunday to “show up on or before Dec. 6th.” His team also set out Sunday for a “Souls to the Polls” event to mobilize Black and brown voters.

Donald Trump

Former President Trump threw his support behind Walker back in September and again in October after several controversies around the former football player came to light.

In Trump’s speech announcing his 2024 presidential run, he called Walker “a fabulous human being who loves our country.”

“He was an incredible athlete. He’ll be an even better senator,” Trump said. “Get out and vote for Herschel Walker.”

But Trump has also proven to be a hindrance to the GOP in the Peach State. He has been outspoken against early voting since his initial run in 2016 and has falsely conflated early voting with fraudulent voting — a factor that Republicans pointed to when both GOP candidates lost in the state’s 2021 Senate special election runoffs. At his 2024 campaign announcement, Trump called for a ban on early voting practices and demanded that the U.S. adopt “same-day voting” and mandatory paper ballots.

Meanwhile, after a lackluster general election in which all of Trump’s endorsed candidates lost, some Republicans are likely concerned about the prospect of the former president wading into the race.

According to CNN exit polls, only 39 percent of midterm voters view Trump favorably, while 58 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Twenty-eight percent said their vote in the U.S. House elections were to show opposition to Trump.

Still, Trump’s ability to motivate the GOP base could work in Walker’s favor, though Democrats are hoping it will also mobilize those who oppose the former president.

Since Trump announced his candidacy for 2024, Warnock’s team has already released a new ad warning voters to “Stop Donald Trump. Stop Herschel Walker.”

Independent and split-ticket voters

During the general election, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) won 2.1 million votes while Walker won only slightly more than 1.9 million votes, indicating that not all Republican voters cast their ballots based on party alliance.

Kemp, who easily won his primary election in May and handily defeated his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, on Nov. 8, is now using his political cache with moderates and independents to motivate them to back Walker, even though Kemp is on bad terms with Trump for refusing to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia in 2020.

Kemp recently cut an ad for Walker, appeared beside him for the first time ever at a campaign rally and has formed a partnership with a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to boost the Republican.

“I know that Herschel Walker will fight for us,” Kemp said at the event in Cobb County. “He will go and fight for those values that we believe in here in our state.”

Kemp lost to Abrams in Cobb County by 5 points, while Walker lost to Warnock by 17 points.

Abortion

After the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, abortion played a defining role in this year’s midterms.

While inflation and the economy have been top-of-mind issues in many polls, abortion has also been a priority. An early November poll by 11Alive showed 57 percent of voters said a candidate’s stance on abortion would be a major factor when they cast their ballots.

Nearly 86 percent of Black voters in Georgia oppose the state’s current law, according to a University of Georgia survey commissioned by the Georgia News Collaborative.

Abortion became a pivotal topic in the Senate race this year as controversies surrounding Walker’s campaign made headlines.

Before Nov. 8, multiple women alleged Walker, a staunch proponent of anti-abortion policies, had previously encouraged and paid for them to seek an abortion after he got them pregnant.

In August, Walker said that he opposes any exceptions to a ban on abortion, though he walked that statement back at a debate in October to say he supports Georgia’s current ban on abortions after six weeks with exceptions for cases of rape or incest and if the pregnant person’s health is at risk.

Warnock’s campaign has seized on these comments to release ads for the incumbent’s support for pro-abortion rights legislation. Warnock has mostly avoided speaking directly on the topic of accusations that Walker paid for abortions except to say Walker “has trouble with the truth.”

The Obama effect

Former President Obama announced before Thanksgiving he would campaign with Warnock on Dec. 1.

It will be Obama’s second time campaigning in the Peach State for Warnock — he rallied for the senator in October before a crowd of more than 7,000 people.

Obama remains a popular Democratic figure and he hasn’t pulled punches when it comes to speaking out against Republicans.

At his last visit in Georgia before the general election, he emphasized the importance of the election as a way to save democracy.

An Obama visit could mobilize not only Black voters, but others as well — when campaigning for president, he has built a coalition that was diverse in race, location and party lines.

And as Republicans begin drifting away from Trump, Obama could convince independent and moderate voters — and perhaps even Obama-turned-Trump voters — to cast their ballots for Warnock.

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