(Bloomberg) -- For the second time in just under two years, Georgia is in the middle of the battle for control of the US Senate with both parties pouring money and other resources into the runoff after Election Day failed to produce a victor.
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The Dec. 6 election is a reset for incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Democrats who got perilously close to losing a key Senate seat Tuesday to Republican challenger Herschel Walker, whose campaign was enveloped by drama and controversy.
The result could be decisive in determining control of the Senate, depending on the outcomes of races in Nevada and Arizona, where Election Day ballots are still being counted. The runoff campaign may feature each party’s most influential surrogates, including President Joe Biden, should Warnock ask him to appear.
“I plan on doing whatever he wants me to do for him,” Biden told reporters as he left the White House Thursday for a series of overseas summits.
Democrats are hoping for a repeat of their 2021 success when Warnock rode record turnout to become Georgia’s first Black senator. In that January runoff election, Warnock, the Baptist preacher-turned-politician and Jon Ossoff became the first Democrats that Georgia sent to the US Senate in almost two decades. Their elections also gave Democrats control of the chamber.
Warnock is back on the ballot because he completed the term of a senator who had resigned. He and Walker have been mired for months in a much closer than expected race. Election Day ended with Warnock about 32,000 votes ahead of Walker out of more than 3.9 million cast. But Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver drew 2.1% of the vote, leaving the two top contenders with less than 50% of the vote.
Georgia is one of three states where the outcome of pivotal Senate races has yet to be determined. Nevada and Arizona, both states where a Democrat currently holds the seat, are still counting votes. If Republicans and Democrats split those two states, control of the Senate would be decided by Georgia once again. But if Democrats win in Nevada and Arizona, Georgia won’t be decisive, and that could affect the runoff.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, is partnering with Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who cruised to re-election on Tuesday, to help Walker, according to an SLF spokesperson.
Kemp has a data and analytics operation that includes paid door knocking, phones, modeling, an absentee ballot program and tracking. SLF is funding the program with more than $2 million, the spokesperson said.
“If it is for the majority, Republicans will be motivated,” Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University said. “And those GOP voters who stayed home in the Jan. 2021 runoff will likely want to rectify that mistake.”
But if the Senate majority isn’t on the line, he said, “there may be a lot of Georgia Republicans who could be deflated, and hand the runoff to Warnock.”
The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm announced Thursday it was pumping $7 million into Georgia to help Warnock by making direct contacts with voters.
Separately, Gwen Mills, secretary treasurer of Unite Here, a national union for hospitality workers, said she’ll be in Georgia Friday to kick off the union’s effort to help by working with other organizations to bring in experienced canvassers from across the country. They plan to hit between 250,000 and 350,000 doors in the Columbus and Atlanta metro areas.
“It’s such a short time period that collaboration is key,” Mills said. “The most important thing, day to day, will be walking the neighborhoods.”
For television-watching Georgia voters, it’s as if the campaigns never ended. Nearly 700 Senate campaign ads have run in Georgia since midnight on election night, according to data from AdImpact.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee was placing $137,500 worth of new ads Thursday through next Tuesday. An ad released Thursday on Walker’s behalf repeated the main GOP theme from the general election campaign, tying Warnock to President Joe Biden, higher taxes and more government spending.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz plans to campaign with Walker Thursday night, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, is targeting evangelical Christians across the state.
Reed said the group had its fliers and mailers printed and stored in a warehouse in anticipation of the runoff. They also are planning to knock on the doors of a half million evangelicals, make a million phone calls and send out two million texts to its voters.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go another 28 days but we were prepared to do so,” Reed said.
The Democratic turnout effort that gave Warnock his seat two years ago will be hard to replicate because of changes Georgia’s Republican legislature made to state law in 2021, according to Cliff Albright, the Atlanta-based co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, part of a consortium of progressive grassroots groups who have been critical to Democratic get-out-the-vote campaigns.
The legislature slashed the nine-week runoff period that was the law in 2020 to just four weeks. The pre-runoff early voting period, which was key to Warnock’s runoff victory in January 2021, has been reduced from three weeks to just one. And the law did not change the deadline for registering to vote in advance of the runoff accordingly, leaving it the same as it was when the runoff was twice as long. Registering new voters was a big part of the turnout efforts in advance of Warnock’s 2021 runoff as well, Albright said.
The deadline for registering to vote for the Dec. 6 runoff this year was Monday, the day before anyone knew there would be a runoff at all.
“This was all by design,” he said. “They saw the power of early voting and registration last time and the first thing they did was try to attack and change it.”
The flood of outside money that helped Democratic runoff turnout in 2020 and 2021 hasn’t materialized yet, although the midterm election was just days ago. But the organizations that used it to fund an extraordinary turnout effort for Warnock and Ossoff have less flexibility because of the truncated runoff period. The worry is that funders may be waiting until the Senate results in Arizona and Colorado come in, Albright said.
“All of these things are going to have an impact on our ability to turn people out in this runoff as much as the previous runoff,” he said. “We can overcome it and mobilize faster. But whether we do it or not, the point is that it has been made harder.
--With assistance from Mario Parker, Gregory Korte and Erik Wasson.
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