Tuesday’s Senate runoff will settle one race and many questions

The runoff between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker gives voters another chance to decide the coveted seat, and the outcome will shape whether Georgia has decisively swung back to GOP territory or retains its purplish hue.

A Warnock victory in the final election of 2022 would give Democrats the clear majority in the chamber, while Republicans are eager to narrow the Democratic advantage in the Senate to limit President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Unlike the November midterm, Walker won’t have Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans on the ballot to help as he appeals to swing voters. And Warnock, who has been on five ballots since November 2020, must persuade supporters to rally for him one more time.

Here are some of the key questions shaping Tuesday’s runoff:

How badly do Georgia Republicans want Walker to win?

Thanks to a turnout surge, Democrats are confident they’ve built a solid cushion during early voting that will pose a difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacle for Walker. An analysis by the left-leaning TargetSmart firm projects Warnock with at least 52% of the early vote.

Nearly one-third of the early-voting electorate is Black, the most reliable base of support for Democrats, and African Americans turned out in higher numbers than other demographics, Emory University political scientist Bernard Fraga said.

But Walker still retains a path to victory. The few polls of the runoff indicate he has the edge with older voters, who participated in early voting at high rates. And Walker is relying on heavy election day turnout, which has long favored Republicans.

The question is whether the GOP base will turn out in big numbers for Walker, whose history of erratic and violent behavior — as well as blunders on the campaign trail — have alienated many in the party.

“Your average Georgia Republican voter has already moved on,” said Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb County GOP chair. “Most Republicans knew Walker needed to win in November as he had too many missteps and too many negatives. He needed the rest of the ticket to pull him over the goal.”

His most loyal supporters expect to pull off a surprise. Connie Tiffany of Flowery Branch said she’s praying for an upset.

“I think Republicans are going to show up. I’m cautiously optimistic that Tuesday is going to be a big turnout,” said Tiffany, one of dozens of Walker supporters who packed a diner Monday to cheer him on. “I just feel like, in the pit of my stomach, he’s going to pull it out.”

Wary of a premature victory lap, Warnock pleaded with Democrats not to get lulled into complacency.

“There is still a path for Herschel Walker to win this race — he still could win,” he said at a Monday campaign stop.

Will split-ticket voters come back out for Warnock?

Throughout his campaign, Warnock has tried to give swing voters a reason to back him. He’s emphasized his bipartisan work across the aisle with conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio more than he’s talked about his support for Biden.

It’s a calculated strategy. He wants to show moderates, independents and wavering Republicans that it’s safe to vote for him if they harbor concerns about Walker. And it worked in the midterm, when Walker earned 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp.

This time, the governor has joined Walker on the campaign trail and cut ads trying to woo those split-ticket voters to back the former football player. But Walker himself has hardly changed his message, which focuses on culture war issues popular with the base.

His final runoff eve rally Monday, to supporters at a Kennesaw shooting range, marked a rare moment when Walker steered clear of a usual stump speech about transgender athletes and homespun anecdotes and tried to pit his contest in broader, nationalized terms.

“A vote for Warnock is a vote for Joe Biden, it’s a vote for Chuck Schumer. A vote for me is a vote for Georgia values.“

Warnock, meanwhile, has made a sustained appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. Thanks to an enormous fundraising edge, Democrats have legions of canvassers targeting that bloc of voters, and he’s aired a blitz of ads featuring Republicans declaring their support for the Democrat.

“The split-ticket voters that decided to cast a ballot again are going to stay with Warnock because Walker hasn’t given them any reason to change their mind or their vote,” Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Clark said. “And with control of the Senate no longer in play, it’s not even a strategic vote.”

How will Walker fare in areas where he lagged behind Kemp?

A campaign’s election eve schedule speaks volumes about its closing strategy, and on Monday Walker planned visits across Atlanta’s northern suburbs and North Georgia, where he lagged significantly behind Kemp.

Unlike the last round of voting, he also has Kemp’s full-throated support. To pull off a victory, Walker needs soaring turnout from the vote-rich GOP strongholds in North Georgia, along with suburban areas where Kemp’s more mainstream blend of politics is the dominant strain of conservatism.

Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and former U.S. House candidate, said that’s where the “real work” for Walker will be.

“In the general election, he lagged farther behind Brian Kemp in North Georgia than he did in south metro Atlanta and South Georgia,” she said. “So he’s spending his time where he needs to get the votes out.”

Warnock, meanwhile, is doing his part to cut into Walker’s vote total by driving out voters who often skip runoffs. He has crisscrossed college campuses throughout the state and launched ad campaigns targeting hard-to-reach Georgians.

“I’m not about to give up on the young people of this state. And as I move across college campuses there is a lot of energy and a lot of focus on this election,” Warnock said Sunday after a visit to woo University of Georgia students. “And come Tuesday night we’ll see where all of that ends up.”

Will Trump help or hurt Walker?

When former President Donald Trump launched a comeback bid in the middle of the runoff, many Democrats predicted it would be a turning point for Warnock.

Trump is a uniquely polarizing force in Georgia politics, and polls of likely runoff voters show he is particularly unpopular with Black voters who are key to Democratic wins in the state.

Senior state Republican officials, armed with polling data that showed the former president could do more harm than good for Walker, helped persuade Trump to steer clear of an in-person rally in Georgia after the May primary.

But Walker’s relationship with Trump is complicated. They have known each other for roughly 40 years, when Trump recruited Walker to play on his pro football team. And Walker owes at least some of his early support to Trump’s endorsement, which declared him an “unstoppable” force in Georgia politics. Facing an early-vote deficit, Walker’s campaign didn’t want to leave any options on the table.

It helps explain why Walker agreed to allow Trump to host an election eve virtual rally to urge Republicans to return to the polls — even if it could also energize Democrats.

And in a sign of the perils Trump still poses to Republicans, the former president’s live phone event for Walker was closed to the media. But Trump gave a taste of his message in a social media post that declared Walker ”was a great athlete and he will be an even greater United States senator.“