Boots on the ground could be key to how US Senate runoff is won

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Cara Allen and Alexx Vosmeier were engrossed in a rerun of “Law and Order: SVU” when they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside their home, to their extreme surprise, was U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

After a quick scramble — the two were in their pajamas enjoying a lazy Sunday morning — they each told the Democrat they support his bid for a full six-year term and used the impromptu moment to stress the need for expanded health care options.

Warnock’s visit was an extraordinary example of the scenes playing out across Georgia as hundreds of staffers and thousands of volunteers beg voters to cast their ballots one more time this election season, this time in a consequential U.S. Senate runoff.

After years of playing catch-up to Democrats’ vaunted get-out-the-vote efforts, Republicans poured more resources than ever into closing the gap in the midterm. Gov. Brian Kemp invested more than $10 million into building his own apparatus.

It appears to have paid off. Amid underwhelming turnout, Republicans won every statewide race except for the U.S. Senate contest between Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. Since neither won a majority of the vote, a Dec. 6 runoff is required.

The four-week overtime vote for the coveted U.S. Senate seat is once again testing both campaigns and the parties behind them. Both campaigns boast legions of reinforcements, and outside groups tout new plans to drive up turnout every day.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

At stake is a crucial 51st seat in the U.S. Senate that would give Democrats an outright majority that could blunt the influence of more centrist members and give them more flexibility to pass President Joe Biden’s priorities over the next two years.

A victory for Walker would maintain the Senate’s current balance of 50-50, which gives Democrats the edge thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. But it also gives the GOP more leverage to block Biden’s proposals ahead of the 2024 race.

“Runoffs are about turnout. It’s a sprint, not a marathon — and whoever does a better job getting their folks to the polls wins,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “We intend for it to be us.”

His group plans to spend $2 million during the runoff to boost Walker’s campaign, with goals to knock on 400,000 doors and make 1 million calls through the election.

Catching up

While the seemingly never-ending blitz of ads drives the bulk of spending — more than $300 million has been spent on ads, per an analysis by media strategist Rick Dent — the ongoing efforts to personally connect with voters play a paramount role in campaigns.

Armed with sophisticated voter data and old-fashioned flyers, these door-to-door trips are no blind scavenger hunts for voters. Staffers and volunteers use apps and well-rehearsed scripts to target their most likely supporters with pinpoint accuracy.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

One of the main missions for the scores of canvassers from both parties is to lock in the “lowest hanging fruit” during the early voting period — the most likely voters — so they can shift more resources to target those who often skip runoff elections.

The stakes have changed since the midterm. Walker and his allies want to make the race a referendum on President Joe Biden and decades-high inflation. But Democrats clinched control of the chamber, depriving Walker of the argument that a vote for him is a vote for a GOP-run Senate.

Warnock, who has emphasized bipartisanship, is also leaning into another dynamic: About 200,000 Georgians backed Kemp and not Walker in the midterm, a crucial bloc of voters whose wariness of the Senate nominee helped plunge the race into overtime.

Walker’s drop-off was sharply pronounced in Atlanta’s suburbs, an area where GOP canvassers have been particularly active during the runoff campaign.

On a recent weekday morning, a small contingent of door-knockers, a platoon in the army of staffers assembled by the Republican National Committee, deployed along a windy street in Milton lined with million-dollar homes.

The handful of people who were home were handed Walker leaflets and asked whether they would vote and for whom, and how they would cast their ballot. The latter answer is crucial, as GOP officials will follow up with mail-in voters.

The same scenes have played out in neighborhoods, apartment complexes and rural areas across Georgia to urge voters to cast their ballots again.

The RNC and state GOP boast 400 staffers to augment Walker’s team of about 30 field operatives. Pro-Walker outside groups are providing at least 100 more paid canvassers, some assigned to specifically target voters of color.

Warnock’s campaign added about 300 more people to its payroll, for a total of more than 900 assigned to knock on doors, send texts and find other ways to connect with voters.

The two parties also heavily rely on tens of thousands of volunteers who sign up to send texts, dial phones, write postcards and blanket neighborhoods with leaflets.

“You know how to talk to people about this — you just want to get their buy-in,” Lissie Stahlman reminded a handful of veteran door-knockers at a Chamblee Democratic office. “You want to engage them on when they’re planning to vote — and who they’re taking with them.”

‘Had to take a selfie’

With so many resources at the ready, campaigns are dabbling with unconventional ways to connect with voters.

Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition will distribute voter guides in 5,000 churches. Warnock’s campaign planned what an aide called an “impossible to miss” blitz, complete with airborne messages, to appeal to hard-to-reach voters.

And before the midterm, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff revived his “paid relational” program that paid thousands of Georgians to tap their personal networks to encourage irregular voters to get involved.

But much of the work is done the old-fashioned way, a painstaking but deeply personal effort to track down voters one by one and encourage them to return to the ballot box.

“The ground game is mission-critical during this runoff election, especially for Black and brown voters. And we knew we had to prepare for a runoff election well before the general election ended,” said Hillary Holley of Care in Action, part of a coalition that has knocked on 1.5 million doors since the day after the midterm.

Warnock’s recent trip to south DeKalb County was meant to put those efforts on display. He didn’t venture into hostile territory; he carried the surrounding precinct by an overwhelming margin, and many of the tidy lawns were decorated with his signs.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Nor was it meticulously scripted. Warnock’s brief canvassing trip hit a few surprised households — and involved a few unanswered knocks. He joked that it’s “how you know we didn’t set this up.”

“They’re just a little bit surprised to see their local U.S. senator standing at their door,” he said with a chuckle, finding a common thread with his other job as a minister. “I’m enjoying this. And, you know, it’s similar to being the pastor — you spend time with the flock.”

Surprised may have been an understatement to describe the reaction of Laqonda Ellis, who at first didn’t believe the Democrat was standing outside her home.

“My daughter told me he was out here — and I was shocked,” she said. “I told him I voted for him, of course.”

Before he left, she made one request from her doorstep.

“I had to take a selfie with him.”