Georgia U.S. Senate race heading to runoff

The race between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker is headed to a Dec. 6 runoff that could determine control of the U.S. Senate after neither candidate captured a majority of the vote to win the race outright.

With nearly all the results in, less than a percentage point separated the two candidates — slightly more than 35,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast. Libertarian Chase Oliver netted 2%.

That sets the stage for what’s becoming a familiar trend in Georgia. Two years ago, both of the state’s U.S. Senate races were forced into nine-week runoffs that ended with Democratic victories that flipped control of the chamber.

ExploreHow will the Georgia Senate election runoff work?

State lawmakers have since shortened the runoff period to four weeks, dramatically speeding up the timeline for campaigns to turn out voters. State elections officials said they are already working to lay the groundwork for the next phase of voting.

“Ballots are being built as we speak, and counties are making preparations,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. ”This will be a very heavy lift for our counties because it’s a four-week runoff period. But we have confidence they will take all the measures required to rise to the task.”

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia’s contest is one of three U.S. Senate races — along with Arizona’s and Nevada’s — that remained too close to call on Wednesday afternoon. That sets up a potential replay of 2021 when a pair of runoff races in Georgia became the center of national politics, ending with victories by Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

This year’s runoff will bring another onslaught of ads amid an election season that’s already smashed state midterm spending records, plus more intense media attention trained on the two campaigns and Georgia’s changing political dynamics. It will also trigger new attacks in a bitter rivalry.

The top aides to both candidates gave a taste of what’s to come Wednesday as they bickered online, though the back-and-forth paled in comparison with the jabs each of the candidates have thrown at one another.

Warnock campaign manager Quentin Folks shot first by saying Walker “significantly underperformed” in a political climate that benefited Republicans. Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise swung back: “More than 50% of Georgians voted against the incumbent that spent more than $100 million.”

On the campaign trail, the candidates have done far worse. After initially casting his rival as a “nice guy” who votes the wrong way, Walker now routinely labels Warnock a Marxist and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Warnock said his opponent is unfit to serve in office and blasts his pattern of “disturbing” behavior.

The condensed runoff cycle forces the candidates to rapidly rev up their efforts to raise cash, mobilize voters and hit the campaign trail. But the biggest factor that could shape the runoff campaign — whether the Georgia race will determine control of the Senate — is still up in the air.

If Georgia winds up deciding which party rules the Senate, Walker’s chances could get a boost. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings remain below 40% in Georgia, and polls indicate many GOP voters could look past their concerns with Walker to vote against Democratic control of the chamber.

But if control of the Senate is clearly decided for either party, it could better Warnock’s chances. Republicans would no longer be able to frame the race as a check on Democratic control, and GOP voters concerned about Walker’s personal issues may have less of a reason to turn out to vote.