Why Kemp-Warnock voters could factor into 2022 race

Polls have shown that Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is running several points ahead of his party's nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, lending support to suggestions that a significant number of Georgia voters could split their tickets this fall. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Polls have shown that Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is running several points ahead of his party's nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, lending support to suggestions that a significant number of Georgia voters could split their tickets this fall. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Betty Florence’s voting history is all over the political map.

The Dahlonega retiree voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016 and Republican Brian Kemp for governor two years later. But she backed Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs.

And in 2022, she’s planning a different approach: She intends to split her ticket with a vote for Kemp over his Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams, and support Warnock over Republican nominee Herschel Walker.

“I don’t think my views are going to be unusual,” Florence said. “I’m voting for the person and the issues — not the party.”

With four months to go until the November vote, it’s impossible to predict what new developments could upend an election in which even minor fluctuations in voter habits could have major consequences.

But there’s some evidence that a bloc of voters plan to divide their votes in the state’s top races between Warnock and Kemp.

That dynamic is backed by public polling averages that indicate the governor is outperforming Walker by about 4 percentage points — and that Warnock is garnering more support than Abrams by roughly the same margin.

Some potential split-ticket voters are Republicans who can’t stomach voting for Walker, whose history of violent behavior, pattern of false claims and mystifying comments has threatened GOP chances to win a seat that could decide control of the evenly divided Senate.

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Polls have shown that support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker is about 4 percentage points the backing Gov. Brian Kemp is receiving. That's helped foster suggestions that a significant number of Georgia voters could split their tickets in November, backing Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams but picking Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock over Walker. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Polls have shown that support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker is about 4 percentage points the backing Gov. Brian Kemp is receiving. That's helped foster suggestions that a significant number of Georgia voters could split their tickets in November, backing Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams but picking Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock over Walker. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Polls have shown that support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker is about 4 percentage points the backing Gov. Brian Kemp is receiving. That's helped foster suggestions that a significant number of Georgia voters could split their tickets in November, backing Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams but picking Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock over Walker. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I love Herschel. I’m a University of Georgia alum and a longtime fan. But he’s not qualified to be a senator,” said Paul R. Phillips, who said Walker’s ties to Trump prove “he does not understand what is going on in this country.”

Others are Democratic voters who say they want to reward Kemp for rejecting Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia or because they’re satisfied with his performance in his first term in office.

Deborah T. Hamm sees Kemp’s support for gun expansions as “ridiculous” and abhors the anti-abortion restrictions he signed into law in 2019. Otherwise, however, she said she has found “little fault” in his stances.

“I will split my vote,” she said. “I vote for whom I feel will best serve our state — even if some of the policies, in this case Kemp’s stance on abortion rights and guns, do not reflect my beliefs.”

Of ‘bad air’ and bad press

Some experts say this split-ticket trend may not factor prominently into the race as the campaign heats up in the fall, when even more negative ads will bombard voters and wayward partisans often return to the fold.

“Studies show ticket-splitting is declining overall. More and more voters may talk about it, but when the rubber meets the road they have a tendency to go back to their partisan base,” said Karen Owen, a University of West Georgia political scientist.

Abrams’ campaign, in particular, is not surprised by this dynamic. She’s been a top target of Georgia Republicans for much of the past decade, and Kemp is seen as a stronger candidate than Walker. Both Kemp and Warnock also benefit from incumbency in the polls.

“We think at the end of the day it’s going to even up pretty quickly,” said Fred Yang, the Abrams campaign’s pollster, who said the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion is one of “many $64 million questions” in this race.

“We don’t know how it will affect turnout — especially how it will impact voter participation in a governor’s race,” he said. “But we do know that polls consistently show a strong majority of Georgia voters — including a significant number of Republicans — don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned.”

Still, activists and operatives are concerned it portends a larger trend that could hurt GOP chances of sweeping both offices — and Democratic hopes of capturing the governor’s seat for the first time in more than two decades.

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Democrat Stacey Abrams is generally trailing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in most public polling, but her campaign believes it can make up the difference by focusing on issues such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.

Credit: Staff and wire

Democrat Stacey Abrams is generally trailing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in most public polling, but her campaign believes it can make up the difference by focusing on issues such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.

Credit: Staff and wire

Combined ShapeCaption
Democrat Stacey Abrams is generally trailing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in most public polling, but her campaign believes it can make up the difference by focusing on issues such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.

Credit: Staff and wire

Credit: Staff and wire

“Sen. Warnock is going to be the top vote-getter, but there might be a 3- or 5-point difference between him and Stacey Abrams,” said Fred Hicks, a Democratic strategist. “That’s a significant vote gap that will benefit Kemp. And if that’s the case, you’ll have Warnock and Kemp as the most likely winners.”

Republicans, too, are expressing mounting concerns that Walker’s tumultuous campaign could alienate some middle-of-the-road voters who might otherwise back the GOP slate.

Just in the past week, Walker has confronted reports that he wasn’t forthright with his campaign aides about how many children he fathered and faced fallout from mystifying comments about the coronavirus and “bad air” at a Hall County GOP stop that barred the press.

Marci McCarthy, who chairs the DeKalb County GOP, said the likelihood of a significant number of split ticket voters in November is “very real” — and that several of her friends fall in that category. She gives ample credit to Warnock’s adsmiths for furthering the Republican wedge.

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DeKalb County GOP Chair Marci McCarthy, left, says the possibility is real that voters will split their tickets to support Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in November. She credits Warnock's advertising for increasing his appeal. “He comes across as very personable and likable in his ads,” she said. McCarthy says, however, that she will be voting for Republican Herschel Walker in the Senate race. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

DeKalb County GOP Chair Marci McCarthy, left, says the possibility is real that voters will split their tickets to support Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in November. She credits Warnock's advertising for increasing his appeal. “He comes across as very personable and likable in his ads,” she said. McCarthy says, however, that she will be voting for Republican Herschel Walker in the Senate race. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County GOP Chair Marci McCarthy, left, says the possibility is real that voters will split their tickets to support Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in November. She credits Warnock's advertising for increasing his appeal. “He comes across as very personable and likable in his ads,” she said. McCarthy says, however, that she will be voting for Republican Herschel Walker in the Senate race. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“I’m of course going to vote for Walker. But I can understand how Warnock’s advertising would resonate with a voter who isn’t deeply affiliated with any party,” McCarthy said.

“He comes across as very personable and likable in his ads,” she said. “And what I’ve heard from some conservatives is a sense that Abrams has gone off the deep end, but that Warnock is more acceptable.”

‘Urgent and clear needs’

Walker’s allies say they’re confident the vote gap will narrow as a broader Republican offensive against Warnock intensifies. The GOP has long tried to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden’s falling approval ratings and is more recently pummeling him on a range of new fronts.

And Abrams will leverage her financial advantage to paint Kemp as an extremist by turning his record over the past four years into a liability. She and her allies have tried to channel outrage at the Supreme Court decision on abortion — as well as rulings on religion and gun rights — into electoral energy.

As she unveils a series of proposals that would one-up some of Kemp’s most prized achievements, the Democrat has also blasted the governor for what she frames as a refusal to address housing shortages, an exodus of teachers and lagging public health care.

“We have urgent and clear needs,” Abrams said, “and Brian Kemp is refusing to take action.”

By November, however, the campaigns may have bigger concerns than worrying about split tickets.

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Democrat Stacey Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, recently told grassroots donors that more resources are needed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of left-leaning voters who may feel disenchanted by national politics. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Democrat Stacey Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, recently told grassroots donors that more resources are needed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of left-leaning voters who may feel disenchanted by national politics. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Democrat Stacey Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, recently told grassroots donors that more resources are needed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of left-leaning voters who may feel disenchanted by national politics. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo told grassroots donors of a pressing need for more resources to mobilize an expansive universe of hundreds of thousands of left-leaning voters who may feel disenchanted by national politics.

And Walker’s campaign must appeal to die-hard Trump supporters who believe the former president’s false claims of a “rigged” election and may be reluctant to vote, as well as other conservatives who aren’t impressed with the former football star’s candidacy.

“The split-ticket voters make up a very slim margin,” said Owen, the political scientist. “It’s more important for the candidates to turn out their base. Democrats need to rally around social and cultural issues that energize them, and Republicans will lean into voters who are upset by the Biden administration.”

George Dunn epitomizes that dilemma for Walker’s campaign. He described himself as a “pretty faithful” Republican voter in Suwanee who backs Kemp and reluctantly cast a ballot for Trump. But he’s considering skipping the race for the U.S. Senate entirely — unless there’s a dramatic change.

“I’ve never done that before,” he said of bypassing the Senate vote.

“If, however, the left does something crazy between now and the midterms” — he listed scaling back the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court among those possibilities — “I will not hesitate to vote for Walker.”