Oh, Georgia. It appears it could all be coming down to the Peach State yet again. About 3.9 million votes have been counted among three candidates: incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, Republican football star Herschel Walker, and Libertarian Chase Oliver. None received over 50 percent of the vote, the threshold required in Georgia law for a winner to be declared. That means the top two candidates, Warnock, who’s gotten 49.4 percent of the vote, and Walker, who earned 48.5, will head to a high-stakes runoff in a few short weeks for a showdown that could likely determine control of Congress. Yes, it sure feels like 2020 all over again.
It’s not a wholly surprising situation but it does up the ante, as Republicans expected a red wave that was more of a blip while Democrats appeared to overperform expectations despite President Joe Biden’s dismal approval rating. As of Thursday afternoon, there are still critical swing states that don’t yet have results—we’re looking at you, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, and of course, Georgia. Arizona is looking like a bright spot for Democrats, as incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly holds 50 percent of the vote while MAGA Republican Blake Masters trails with 46 percent. Both parties’ Senate races are in a dead heat in Nevada and Alaska, so depending on how they shake out, Georgia could, once again, become the purveyor of congressional power.
I decided to consult an expert in political strategy to understand what is happening in Georgia and what we should expect in the coming weeks ahead of a Warnock versus Walker showdown. I spoke with Andra Gillespie, an associate professor at Emory College, and we discussed the role of third-party candidate Oliver, who those voters might go to now, and how this compares to the 2020 Georgia runoff. Our conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Shirin Ali: Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver got 2 percent of the vote. Even a portion of that could have pushed Walker or Warnock over the threshold. How do you think Oliver impacted Georgia’s Senate race results?
Andra Gillespie: There were three possible splits that could have happened among people who voted for Brian Kemp. The overwhelming majority of Brian Kemp voters voted for Herschel Walker in the election, but of those who didn’t vote for Walker, they could have abstained from the Senate race entirely, or they could have voted for Chase Oliver when they could have voted for Raphael Warnock.
The big takeaway is one shouldn’t necessarily assume that all of those Libertarians are traditional Libertarians in the ideological sense who will necessarily flock back to vote for Walker in the general election. Some of them will, no doubt, and of the fewer Libertarians it’s a question of whether or not they turn out to vote again, now that their first-choice candidate is gone.
What type of voter went for Oliver?
Oliver is the Libertarian, so I would expect that other voters who identify as Libertarian would be attracted to his candidacy. Oftentimes, because Libertarians are the types of voters who believe in small government, limited state interference, those types of small government values that align more closely to the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. So Libertarians are absolutist in their belief in small government, but it’s not just that they oppose spending or that they are more isolationist in their foreign policy orientations. They tend to be more socially liberal because they think the government shouldn’t be involved in trying to dictate what happens in your personal life. That might be the one place that they’re different, but pound for pound, you’re more likely to see Libertarians vote for, and sometimes even adopt a party banner of being a Republican. I think Rand Paul has been a classic example of this. That’s the reason why we think Oliver may have siphoned more votes off from Walker than Warnock.
Who do you think these Libertarian voters will go to now, if they come out to vote again?
I think the first question is, do they show back up? They may say I don’t like either of them. Then I think the larger question in terms of whether or not it’s the Libertarian voter that’s still the outcome of the election, I think it is the strength of the candidates’ get-out-the-vote effort that’s going to determine who wins or who loses the contest.
This race is basically going to come down to whose attrition is worse. And there will be attrition, not everybody who voted on Tuesday is going to come back to vote in December. I expect that both campaigns will, and actually should, try to find voters that they think are likely to support them that didn’t show up for the midterm election to try to get them to turn out to vote, especially with the margin being as narrow as it is.
It should not be that hard to find an additional 20,000 votes to make sure that you get ahead of your opponent, but you’ve got to do that and actually not lose as many votes as your opponent does in terms of who actually comes back the second time around.
Could the balance of power in Congress play into voters’ decision of who to vote for?
There could be some voters who are making strategic calculations based on what the balance of power in the Senate looks like. For conflicted Republican voters, who couldn’t vote for Walker the first time, that may have been their way to register dissent for Walker’s nomination and their troubles with the candidate. If they’re strongly partisan, and care an awful lot about Republicans regaining control of the chamber, they may change their mind and compromise and vote for Walker on a second ballot, because that’ll be a deciding factor in determining who wins and whether or not Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell is majority leader.
Let’s just say that both Nevada and Arizona end up protecting Democrats, so Mark Kelly winning reelection—then the calculus may be a little different for some voters because then Democrats will have already secured their majority. Some of those voters may choose to abstain and not show up because they still think that Walker was a poor candidate and they want to register their dissent that way. That could affect the vote. At the end of the day, they could use that to teach their party a lesson about an efficient nominee.
I think that all of the possibilities are there and I think the bigger issue here isn’t who Oliver endorses, or even if he endorses, but how good of a job the Democratic and Republican parties and the Walker and Warnock campaigns do in setting up their get-out-the-vote efforts.
It feels as though we cannot talk about the Georgia Senate race without acknowledging the drama that has surrounded the Walker campaign and the multiple abortion allegations that have surfaced. Do you think that influenced turnout and people’s votes?
What we’ve seen is high turnout for a midterm election. The idea that Walker underperformed the other Republicans who are running statewide, and underperformed Donald Trump, is evidence of the weaknesses that Walker brought to the table as a candidate. It also wasn’t just one weakness, it wasn’t just the abortion allegations. It was the allegations of domestic violence, never having held political office before, it was the vague and elliptical answers that he would give about policy issues and questions that I think undermined the trust that some Republicans had in his ability to be able to stand against Warnock and to be able to do the job if he were to get elected.
Now, to be sure, an overwhelming majority of Republicans were not swayed by any of it. He had an R behind his name, and they were going to vote for any Republican. And that’s a function of our era of hyper-partisanship, where people will put parties sometimes above looking at the individual contextual factors of the situation, but a small enough portion of those voters did have concerns about him that led them to make different choices other than just pulling straight party lines in the Senate race. I think that’s the reason why Walker is in the position that he’s in, and Brian Kemp, Burt Jones, Brad Raffensperger, Chris Carr, all won their races handily, and we’re not talking about runoffs for them.
Now that a Senate runoff is imminent, what should voters in Georgia, along with everyone else in the country that’s holding their breath, expect?
It’s going to be a repeat of what happened in 2020, only on a more truncated cycle, since they don’t have a two-month gap for the runoff, it’s only a one-month gap now. Those of us who are stateside and familiar with what happened in 2021, we saw an increase in get-out-the-vote efforts because they became that much more important. In 2020, the Georgia seats were the last two seats that were going to determine control of the chamber. This year, in anticipation of that, from what I’ve seen, they’re already seeing evidence of fundraising pouring into the state since Tuesday, suggesting that the resources are coming here to be able to marshal a massive mobilization effort.
Everybody else in the last couple of days has gotten a reprieve from television ads. We in Georgia are not going to get that reprieve anytime soon. What I expect to see is an increase in the ground game. If people thought that they were getting a lot of text messages and people coming to their doors before Tuesday, that’s going to increase in earnest.
One thing that is different from last time is because we have a shorter time frame from the general election to the runoff, there isn’t an opportunity to register new voters to participate in the runoff elections, because you have to be registered for the next election four weeks before the actual election, which means you can’t register anybody that turns 18 tomorrow, because they won’t be eligible to vote on Dec. 6. So with that off the table, that is one thing that Democrats don’t have at their disposal that they did have in 2020. They are going to focus on making sure that everybody who showed up to vote on Tuesday comes back out again. They’re also probably going to look for people who are registered to vote who didn’t vote Tuesday and try to impart to them the importance of this election and why they need to show up, even if they didn’t show up in November. I expect Republicans to do the same thing. Because the stakes are so high and the margins are so close.