Politics

How Walker and Warnock Pivoted in the Runoff

It’s Georgia’s world. We’re just living in it.

Two men point at each other over podiums and stacks of money.
Georgians are being asked, once again, to vote. Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson/Slate. Photos by Brandon Bell/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images and ismagilov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

One could write a thorough history of American politics from 2020 to 2022 through the prism of Georgia. It’s only appropriate, then—with Tuesday’s Senate runoff—that the state gets to write the final chapter.

The end of the 2022 midterms has come to this: a contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, a pastor known for walking a beagle in campaign ads, and Republican Herschel Walker, the last of the suboptimal MAGA Senate recruits still standing.

Georgians are being asked, once again, to vote.

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“We have jokes about that both internally and externally,” Keron Blair, the chief field officer for New Georgia Project Action Fund, a top organizing group in the state, told me. “Georgians are just like, ‘We’ve got to vote, again? I voted eight times!’ ”

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Aside from the tens of millions of dollars being flung into the state at the last minute, much has changed since Georgia’s most recent Senate runoffs, following the 2020 election. Georgia’s 2021 voting law, S.B. 202, restricted both the runoff window and opportunities to cast ballots. And this time, one of the most critical motivating factors—control of the U.S. Senate—has been removed, as Democrats have already secured control of the next Congress.

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So … there are fewer opportunities to vote, a tighter timeframe to vote, and lower stakes riding on the vote. How do you get Georgians to vote, again?

Senate Control Is Decided. What to Say Now?

As the stakes of this race have adjusted, so has the language from each campaign to describe them.

Instead of winning or holding the Senate, the Warnock campaign is now describing the stakes as “securing the Senate” or adding a buffer to Democrats’ tenuous majority, Georgia-based political strategist Fred Hicks told me. From the Republican side, language about retaking the Senate has given way to a hazier “stopping the Democrats from enacting their agenda,” he said.

That messaging is much more vague than what was used in the general election.

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Two men wave from a stage.
Former President Barack Obama campaigning with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the week before the runoff. Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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In the general, “an argument that was used to encourage hesitant Republicans to support Walker was that it’s important that the party win control of the Senate, and one of the steps you can do to help with that is to vote for Herschel Walker,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Well, you can’t make that argument anymore.”

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“Some number of reluctant Republicans,” Bullock continued, “who maybe voted for him back in November will say, ‘OK, yeah, I didn’t want to vote for him back then, and I was able to rationalize it, but it’s much harder to rationalize” now.

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It’s not that there are zero stakes between 50 or 51 Democratic seats in the Senate. The 50-seat “majority” Democrats had over the past couple of years wasn’t even really that, as Democrats operated under a power-sharing agreement negotiated with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fifty-one seats would give Democrats actual majorities on committees to speed up the process of confirming nominees, as well as a little more breathing room in their whip counts. (In other words, they wouldn’t have to live and die by the whims of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.)

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But this isn’t the cleanest elevator pitch to make to tired voters.

“This idea that ‘Gee, it’s gonna change the makeup of committees,’ ” Bullock said, “unless you’ve recently taken a course in legislative politics, you probably don’t know that. Or care. Or understand its significance.”

“It Is Embarrassing. Let’s Call It What It Is.”

An easier pivot is just vilifying one’s opponent.

The Warnock campaign isn’t much for harsh attack ads and didn’t really go that route in the general election until late in the race. Warnock has a nice-guy image to protect. The campaign has preferred to run positive ads in which the smiling reverend is, say, walking a dog, leaving much of the dirty work of bashing Walker to outside super PAC affiliates.

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Warnock “probably has the best media advertisement of any candidate I’ve ever seen,” Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, told me. “I want to find that person who does all of his ads and pay them so much money they switch sides. I mean: puppies, kids. They’re fantastic.”

But one Warnock attack ad from the runoff goes negative, albeit with a light touch. It shows a carefully curated cross-section of Georgia voters responding with disbelief to some of Walker’s more baffling comments from the trail, such as his digression about werewolves and vampires, or that one about the “bad air” vs. “good air.”

“It is embarrassing. Let’s call it what it is,” one voter concludes.

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Bullock, the Georgia political scientist, said of the ad: “There is greater emphasis coming out of the Warnock camp in terms of qualifications matter” in the runoff.

On the other side, Walker’s team isn’t trying to argue that he’s singularly well qualified to be a United States senator or that there isn’t some dirty laundry in his past. He doesn’t have a nice-guy image to protect. His messaging, as Hicks explained it, seems to be accepting that “the damage is done” and messaging that the other guy is even worse.

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“He’s given up on the likability,” Hicks said. “He’s ceded that. He’s more on the ‘fear them’ campaign.”

The Walker ad that’s earned the most attention in the runoff is one in which he appears alongside Riley Gaines, a former Division I swimmer, who says she was “forced to compete against a biological male.”

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“A man won the swimming title that belonged to a woman,” Gaines says. “And Sen. Warnock voted to let it happen.”

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When all else goes wrong—and a whole lot has gone wrong for Herschel Walker this year—there’s always the argument that the other side is worse.

“Once people have a negative impression of you, you can’t shake it,” Hicks said. “You just have to figure out how to go get more votes. So, is it ‘Ah, I don’t like Herschel, but man, I cannot go for having men in women’s sports’? Or ‘Ah, I don’t trust Herschel—he’s a liar—but the Democrats are bad on the economy; I just don’t trust them’?

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“That’s the kind of choice he’s trying to force,” Hicks said.

Gov. Kemp to the Rescue

Walker does have one powerful asset in his corner: the enthusiastic support of Gov. Brian Kemp—and of Kemp’s political operation.

A man addresses a crowd, with an American flag behind him.
Herschel Walker, campaigning in late November, ahead of the runoff. REUTERS
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In November, Kemp won reelection over Stacey Abrams with 53.4 percent of the vote. His coattails weren’t long enough to drag Walker across the finish line with him, though. Walker earned around 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp did—meaning there were that many voters who mobilized for Kemp but couldn’t stomach voting for his Republican compatriot Walker. (That disparity is but one of many examples of why “candidate quality” should be the political term of the year.)

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Now Kemp is lending his support to Walker in the runoff. He campaigned for Walker, an appearance that was quickly converted into an ad. (The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Mitch McConnell, also quickly made a Walker ad featuring Kemp.) Perhaps more importantly, Kemp has also loaned the Senate Leadership Fund his successful “door-knocking, data analytics, phone-banking and micro-targeting program” to help turn out the vote for Walker.

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“The governor’s grassroots game is outstanding,” Shepherd, the former Cobb County Republican Party chair, told me. And it’s especially important to fill the void left by the “complete failure of leadership,” as Shepherd put it, in the Georgia Republican Party. The state party, under the leadership of Chairman David Shafer, “went to bat for all of Trump’s candidates” targeting statewide officeholders in the primaries, and lost. (Shafer, with Trump’s backing, defeated Shepherd in a chairmanship race last year.)

You’ll recall, perhaps, that Trump and Kemp have some serious beef. After the state party stuck by Trump for the 2022 midterm primaries, it’s “been basically marginalized, not just by elected officials but by donors,” Shepherd said.

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As an example of how ineffective the Georgia Republican Party is, and why Kemp’s operation is needed to step in on Walker’s get-out-the-vote efforts, Shepherd mentioned a mailer from the state party. It did nothing to encourage early voting, and the QR code on it went to a broken link.

So, having Kemp’s operation helps.

Rallying the Weary Troops

As the center of the country’s political universe for the past couple of years, Georgia has seen some things. Let’s recap.

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Joe Biden won its presidential electoral votes in 2020, the first time a Democrat had won there in decades, helping to seal President Trump’s defeat. Trump didn’t accept that defeat, however, and challenged state Republican officials to overturn the results—an effort that remains under investigation. Trump’s sore-loser act contributed to Democrats’ winning both of Georgia’s Senate seats on Jan. 5, 2021, in a runoff held after the Senate elections of 2020 were close to call. And with those wins, Democrats got control of the Senate. The following day, Trump’s election denialism sparked a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol meant to block the presidential transfer of power.

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In the ensuing months, Georgia Republicans passed sweeping legislation that rolled back voting access, while Trump endorsed primary challengers in a (failed) attempt take out leading Republicans in the state. One of those leading Republicans, Gov. Brian Kemp, went on this year to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in one of the most (over)hyped gubernatorial rematches in the country. Oh, and then there was one of the most-watched, and most expensive, Senate races in the country, featuring the biggest bombshell of the election season, which is now going to a runoff on Tuesday.

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It’s clearly been exhausting for state residents.

Despite the state’s population growing by hundreds of thousands of people since the last midterm election in 2018, raw voter turnout this year was flat, at just under 4 million voters turning out in each case. Fewer Georgians turned out to vote in the 2022 general election than voted in the 2021 Senate runoffs.

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“If you look at the Democratic areas, particularly around metropolitan Atlanta, even though Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock received very high percentages according to the exit polls, they didn’t get the absolute voter turnout they needed,” Hicks said. According to an analysis he did, almost 300,000 Black voters who voted in the January 2021 runoff didn’t vote on Nov. 8.

His explanation for the relatively flat turnout, alongside the well-noted economic headwinds Democrats were facing, was that the Democrats “relied more heavily on TV” instead of ground game.

“There wasn’t that personal touch,” he said.

A New Runoff, Under New Rules

Democrats are also facing a more specific statutory headwind known as S.B. 202, the voting law Georgia Republicans passed last year.

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The law rolled back vote-by-mail from its COVID-era heights, cut mandatory early voting (which Democrats take most advantage of) to one week, and moved ballot drop boxes indoors and into government facilities that were open only during business hours. The runoff period was trimmed from nine to four weeks, preventing new voters from registering after the general election. State Republicans also fought tooth and nail to block optional early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving—when a lot of college students, for example, would be home and able to cast their ballots—though ultimately lost that battle.

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One of the challenges for get-out-the-vote groups this time has simply been to teach potential voters about the new limitations.

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“We’ve knocked on a lot of doors, and one of the things that comes up is that … a lot of people thought the runoff was going to happen later, because the last time it did,” said Blair, of New Georgia Project Action Fund. A huge amount of effort has to be made to explain “Hey, there is an election. Here is where you go to vote; here are the times to vote,” he said.

Record numbers of votes were cast in each of the first couple of days of early voting in the runoff. (That doesn’t mean that a record number of early votes will be cast total.) One way that organizers, like those at New Georgia, have tried to motivate turnout in the face of S.B. 202’s restrictions is by almost daring voters to let Georgia Republicans get away with it.

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“People we talk to recognize those efforts as ‘They are trying to make it harder for us to vote,’ and so they are like, ‘Screw that: We are going to show up to make them know that they’re not going to take our power that easily,” Blair said. “So, I don’t want to minimize that efforts were mounted to make it harder for young people, Black people, rural people, women to vote. But I think people saw it, and the organizing that we have been doing with other groups has been successful in mitigating its impact.”

Organizers also recognize that Georgia voters are exhausted after the past couple of years. (No one, after all, is likely more exhausted than Georgia organizers themselves.) Voters have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in ads, Trump’s attempts to bully their state officials into overturning elections, new voting laws, and untold entreaties to turn out and vote again and again.

But on the Democratic side, at least, door-knockers aren’t supposed to lead with that kind of “negative framing.”

“What we lead with is: We have an opportunity with Georgians to once against deliver clear and decisive and competent leadership to the Senate,” Blair said. “And the eyes of America—in fact, some would argue, the eyes of the world—are once again on Georgia.”

Maybe, after Dec. 6, Georgia voters will get to take a break.

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