Republicans redirect hopes for Senate majority on Georgia runoff

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Control of the Senate still hung in the balance on Friday, forcing Senate Republicans to briefly put aside their intraparty blame game as they go all-in on winning Georgia's Senate runoff.

The Senate majority could be decided in the coming days if Democrats defend the seats they hold in both Arizona and Nevada, where votes continue to be counted. But if the GOP picks up just one of those seats, Senate control will be determined by a Dec. 6 runoff election in the Peach State.

GOP operatives continued to express optimism about the party’s chances of picking up a seat in Nevada, even as the path forward appears shakier in Arizona.

But Democrats, fresh off an election night when they outperformed even their own expectations, have reason to believe they can hold the majority. Blake Masters in Arizona is trailing Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly by 5 points — a wider margin than other Republicans on the ticket — while Republican Adam Laxalt’s lead over Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto remains tenuous as votes are still being tallied in the state’s largest county.

“We've got three undecided seats in the Senate, more votes to be counted, but I like our odds a lot better than the other folks',” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

On a Republican conference call Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), went so far as to suggest fraud in Nevada if Laxalt isn’t declared the winner. The midday call was hosted by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“There is no mathematical way Laxalt loses,” Graham said on the call. “If he does, then it’s a lie.”

No evidence of election fraud has emerged, and independent analysts have been expecting Cortez Masto to take the lead for days based on the number of outstanding mail votes in the most Democratic part of the state. Indeed, the Democrat cut Laxalt's advantage to under 1,000 votes late Thursday after Clark County counted another 27,000 mailed ballots.

Besides having legal teams on the ground in Nevada and Arizona, there’s now little the GOP can do to salvage its shot at a majority but go all-in on Georgia.

During the call Thursday, Graham, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Todd Ricketts were reported to be among those co-chairing the finance committee for Walker’s campaign, which is still growing but includes seven senators and Sen.-elect Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), according to a document obtained by POLITICO.

Sen. Rand Paul will be heading up Walker’s libertarian outreach during the runoff. A libertarian candidate in the Nov. 8 election siphoned off 2 percent of the vote, preventing either Walker or Sen. Raphael Warnock from getting more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

Graham and Gingrich told those on the call that both Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are expected to provide support for the Walker campaign.

As prominent Republicans across the country pointed fingers at Trump this week in the aftermath of a disappointing midterm election, the Senate GOP — already divided over this year’s approach to campaigns — has to save much of the bickering for after the runoff. Scott, who was planning to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his leadership position, is now unlikely to do so after failing to win key seats in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire and blowing pickup opportunities in an election that was supposed to usher in a red wave.

Shortly after the conference call, Republican Senate offices received an email from the NRSC with talking points about Herschel Walker and the Georgia runoff and soliciting help from members to act as Walker surrogates over the next few weeks. “We had some losses, but we’re on track to still win the majority,” read one of the talking points in the email.

Scott has donated $500,000 from his leadership PAC to a pro-Walker super PAC in Georgia and spent much of the last two days on the phone with donors. And Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had begun making Georgia fundraising calls himself on Thursday, according to a person familiar with his efforts.

Republicans are already starting to put out “ALL HANDS ON DECK” calls for Georgia, as was the case in a Thursday email from the Louisiana Republican Party soliciting help from GOP supporters. The state party asked members to volunteer to knock on doors in Georgia or send calls and texts from home on Walker’s behalf.

In Ohio, J.D. Vance, who won Tuesday’s Senate race, began tapping into his supporter list to solicit donations for Walker — money that would be split between the two campaigns.

Super PACs are already starting to return to the airwaves in Georgia, with a major Democratic group getting an early jump on the state. This weekend, American Bridge is rolling out a seven-figure television, radio and digital program in the state, targeted to voters outside of the Atlanta media market.

The campaign is launching with a pair of TV ads, which were shared first with POLITICO. The first ad features a series of women calling Walker a liar on a litany of issues. In the ad, two women specifically call out reports that Walker paid his then-girlfriend for an abortion.

“With these ads, American Bridge again seeks to help voters in Georgia understand that Herschel Walker’s hypocrisy and lying make him dangerous and unfit for office, especially as the result of this runoff could determine control of the Senate or broaden a Democratic majority,” the group’s president, Jessica Floyd, said in a statement.

The second ad from the group features a Marietta, Ga., woman saying she “voted for Republican candidates in the past,” before saying she doesn’t think she can do that again, reenforcing the liar theme: “I’ll pray for Herschel Walker, but I will not vote for him,” the ad closes.

Both ads are set to start airing in the state on Saturday.

While preelection polling left it unclear whether a pair of October scandals — involving two past partners saying Walker urged and paid for the women to receive abortions — were enough to sink Walker, Election Day results showed Walker running nearly 5 points behind GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.

Republicans are setting out to flood the airwaves too. The NRSC started re-running television ads on Thursday, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact, while also launching a new spot attacking Warnock.

Meanwhile, vote counting is crawling along in Arizona and Nevada.

In Arizona, there are still hundreds of thousands of ballots that are outstanding. As of Friday morning, the secretary of state’s office projects that there are over 500,000 ballots left to count in the state.

The biggest tranche of ballots remains in Maricopa County, the state’s largest county, which has about 350,000 ballots left to tally. Election officials in the county had said before the election that they hoped to have the vast majority of the votes tallied by the Friday after the election. But during a Thursday evening press conference, they acknowledged that wouldn’t be the case.

“The goalposts have changed,” said Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He said the county had to readjust its expectations because of a wave of mail ballots dropped off at vote centers on Election Day.

Those ballots — some 290,000 of them, or 70 percent more than the previous record number of ballots to be turned in at polling places on Election Day — were slowing down the count because of the time-consuming process to verify them. That last tranche of votes, should historical voting patterns hold, is expected to be heavily Republican.

Gates did not say how long it would take to tally all the ballots specifically, but said that he expected daily tabulation releases to be in the ballpark of what was released Wednesday and Thursday, which ended up being between 62,000 and 78,000 votes.

Those ballots will also be among the last to be counted, because Maricopa and many other election jurisdictions practice a “first in, first out” counting method that tallies earlier arriving ballots first. It is the historical norm in Maricopa to count ballots this way, and elections there are run by the GOP-dominated county board of supervisors and a Republican county recorder.

Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, has used the extended timeline and the fact that later arriving ballots are counted last to attack election officials and lay the groundwork to cast doubt on her loss, should she lose.

She went on Newsmax on Thursday to accuse election officials of “dragging their feet” and “trying to delay the inevitable” in the contest. She also indicated legal action could be in the future, noting that she has “a lot of attorneys” on standby.

“Quite frankly, it is offensive for Kari Lake to say that these people behind me are slow-rolling this when they’re working 14 to 18 hours,” Gates said during his Thursday press conference.

There are also a large number of ballots outstanding in Nevada, with at least tens of thousands left to tally. Many of those ballots originate in Clark County, the state’s largest. Chief election official Joe Gloria, the Clark County registrar of voters, said on Thursday that he anticipated the count in his county to be completed by Saturday.

But should the margin be incredibly tight, a call on the Senate race could be delayed until next week. Voters whose ballots are defective — a ballot that came back unsigned, or election officials are unable to verify the signature on the ballot — can be “cured” by voters through Monday by confirming their ballot with election officials. And provisional ballots, those that come from voters who registered at a polling place, won’t be validated until Wednesday.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.