Georgia braces for December runoff

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ATLANTA — Georgia voters are once again bracing to become the center of the political universe as the Senate race here appears likely to extend into a December runoff.

As of Wednesday morning, Sen. Raphael Warnock led Republican Herschel Walker by just over 35,000 votes with nearly all the votes counted, but neither candidate is expected to clear 50 percent, a requirement of Georgia law to avoid a runoff. That puts Warnock and Walker on track to go head-to-head on Dec. 6 in a race that could end up determining control of the Senate.

Warnock stopped short of formally declaring that he expected a runoff when he addressed roughly 50 diehard supporters at around 2 a.m. on Wednesday. “We’re not sure if this journey is over tonight or if there’s still a little work yet to do,” he said.

Hours earlier, on Tuesday night, Walker told his supporters that he did not “come to lose.”

A runoff would jump start a four-week blitz here, likely drawing millions more in campaign spending to a state that’s weathered five years of non-stop, history-making elections. It would also extend a deeply negative campaign filled with TV ads attacking both candidates' personal lives. Walker has tried to cast Warnock as a rubber-stamp for President Joe Biden’s agenda, while Warnock has painted Walker, a first-time candidate with a controversial personal history, as unqualified for office.

It could be an eerie repeat of the 2021 runoffs, when Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) defeated their Republican opponents to deliver full Democratic control in Washington and a 50-50 Senate. But the level of money and attention Georgia might draw will hinge on if other Senate Democrats hang on in tight races in Arizona and Nevada, which would force the balance of power to be decided back in Georgia.

“Groups and donors will spend money on Georgia regardless because it’s an important Senate seat, but it’s orders of magnitude larger if control of the Senate is at play,” said one Democratic strategist involved in the Georgia race.

The logistics of the 2022 runoff will look different than 2021, after the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature passed a law last year that significantly changed the rules. Most notably, they shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks. But it also restricted early voting during the runoff and essentially eliminated the ability to register new voters during that period, which Democrats had used to great effect in 2021.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, easily avoided a runoff, clearing more than 53 percent support as of Wednesday morning. Democrat Stacey Abrams failed to keep up with Warnock’s margins throughout the state, which public and private polling indicated was likely throughout much of the fall.