Georgia Senate Runoff: Will Warnock Repeat?

by Jacob Rubashkin December 1, 2022 · 10:00 AM EST

It may sound familiar: a runoff in Georgia will help determine the balance of power in the United States Senate.

Because neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Republican football legend Herschel Walker won a majority of the vote on Nov. 8, Georgia law requires the two to run in a second election on Dec. 6. Warnock came close to avoiding a runoff, receiving 49.4 percent of the vote compared to Walker’s 48.5 percent and Libertarian Chase Oliver’s 2.1 percent.

It’s a similar situation to two years ago, when both Georgia Senate races were unsettled on Election Day and headed to overtime on Jan. 5, 2021.

Unlike last cycle, the outcome of this contest will not determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats have already secured the 50 seats they need to hold the upper chamber, aided by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

But having 51 senators, rather than 50, is still important for Democrats. It would allow the party to scrap the power-sharing arrangement in place for the past two years, and would greatly speed up the pace at which the chamber can confirm judges — likely its primary role in a divided Congress.

And with an eye toward a brutal 2024 Senate map, every additional seat better positions Democrats to maintain their majority in two years.

Inside Elections has rated this race a Toss-up for the entirety of the cycle. It was close on Nov. 8 and the finale is likely to be close as well. But it’s hard to see how Warnock and Walker each have the same chance of winning. Not only did the senator outpace Walker narrowly a month ago (and win two years ago), but Democrats are outspending Republicans down the stretch, Warnock’s image is better than Walker’s, Democrats have been hitting their early turnout goals, and Republicans lost the potency of a core message when control of the Senate was decided by other races. We’re changing our rating to Tilt Democratic. 

A rating change toward Warnock should not be equated to a guaranteed win for the Democrat, nor does it indicate Walker cannot win. There’s just more evidence pointing to a Warnock victory, even amidst the uncertainty of turnout in an oddly-timed election. Continuing with a Toss-up rating would be the easiest handicapping decision, but it also wouldn’t accurately reflect the dynamic of the race.

The Lay of the Land
While Georgia has been increasingly competitive for Democrats in recent years, the state’s 2022 elections showed that it is still a GOP-leaning state. Even as Democrats outperformed expectations in other parts of the country, the GOP romped to a near-clean sweep of statewide offices in the Peach State.

Though he fell short of 50 percent, Warnock was the only Democratic candidate to outpace their GOP opponent on Nov. 8; he received 3 to 5 points more support than the rest of his ticketmates. Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams, 53-46 percent, Republican lieutenant governor nominee Burt Jones defeated Charlie Bailey, 51-46 percent, Attorney General Chris Carr defeated Jen Jordan, 52-47 percent, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger defeated Bee Nguyen, 53-44 percent. Races for commissioner of labor, insurance, and agriculture ended in similar fashion.

In 2020, Biden carried the state narrowly, 49.47 percent to Trump’s 49.24 percent. That made him the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1992, and the first Democrat to win any statewide election there since 2006.

In the subsequent January 2021 Senate runoffs, which featured Warnock running against incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler, and documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff running against incumbent Republican David Perdue, both Democrats emerged victorious. Warnock bested Loeffler, 51-49 percent, while Ossoff defeated Perdue, 50.6-49.4 percent.

Where Warnock Excelled
Though Warnock received a nearly identical share of the vote to Biden in the 2020 election — 49.44 percent to Biden’s 49.47 percent — their coalitions appear slightly different.

Geographically, Warnock performed better than Biden in the Atlanta metro area, particularly the suburban counties south of the capital city. While Warnock won Fulton County (Atlanta) by a margin 3 points greater than Biden had, he improved more significantly on Biden’s margins in Paulding (by 4.6 percent), Douglas (6.3 percent), Henry (8.9 percent), Rockdale (7.4 percent), Clayton (5.3 percent) and Newton (4.9 percent) counties. 

Walker, conversely, mildly improved on Trump’s margins in many of the state’s more rural counties, especially in the southwest corner of the state. That may be because Black turnout in many of those counties lagged expectations, not because Walker was winning over rural Black voters. 

In the state’s 11 largest counties, which together account for roughly half of Georgia’s votes, Warnock won by a 25.9 percent margin, improving on Biden’s 24.3 percent margin. But in the other 148 counties, Warnock lost by 24.1 points, worse than Biden’s 23.4 percent loss in 2020.

Warnock also did significantly better than Abrams, who received just 45.9 percent of the vote in the race for governor and lost by 7.5 points. While Warnock outperformed Abrams in every single county, he did comparatively better in the most populated parts of the state. In the 11 largest counties, Abrams won by just 16 percent, a margin 10 points narrower than Warnock’s. Abrams lost the other 148 counties by a combined 31 percent, 7 points worse than Warnock.

According to exit polling conducted by Edison Research for CNN, Warnock ran ahead of Abrams among men, white voters and college-educated voters. He did 8 points better among men but just 5 points better among women, and 8 points better among white voters than Abrams; the two performed about the same among Black voters. Warnock also won college-educated voters by 8 points while Abrams lost them by 1 point. There was no significant difference between the two among voters who never attended college.

Crucially, Warnock won over groups at the center of the electorate, carrying independents by 11 points (Abrams lost them by 1 point) and self-identified “moderates” by 34 points (Abrams won those voters by 24 points). Warnock also won voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden’s job performance, carrying those voters by 6 points even as Abrams was losing them by 16 points.

One reason why Democrats overperformed expectations this year is because voters who somewhat disapproved of Biden’s job as president still voted for Democrats 50-46 percent, while in prior years voters who somewhat disapproved of the president broke heavily for the other party. That meant voters did not necessarily hold an unpopular Biden against other Democrats, and helped neutralize some of the backlash against the president’s party typically seen in midterms.

The Polls
Between the 2020 general election and the Jan. 5, 2021 runoffs, there were no fewer than 26 public polls of Georgia released by media organizations and interested parties. In 2022, just three organizations have published a poll of the runoff race. 

The first was an AARP survey conducted Nov. 11-17 by the bipartisan pollster duo of Impact Research (D) and Fabrizio Ward (R). That poll found Warnock ahead of Walker by 4 points, 51-47 percent, including a 15-point lead among independents. 

A Frederick Polls survey for Democratic groups Compete Digital and AMM Political, conducted Nov. 23-26, found a dead heat between the two nominees at 50 percent each. But that poll, conducted entirely online, likely underestimated the percentage of Black voters in the runoff.

The survey showed Warnock winning Black voters by 80 points, 90-10 percent, but they comprised just 20 percent of the electorate. Yet in every general election in Georgia over the past decade, as well as in the two runoffs in 2018 and 2021, Black voters have accounted for between 28 and 30 percent of the overall electorate, including in contests with low turnout, such as the 2018 secretary of state runoff election.

And an Emerson College poll conducted for The Hill from Nov. 28-30 found Warnock ahead, 51-49 percent. 

The Enthusiasm Gap
Strategists from both parties agree that the runoff is a turnout election, not a persuasion election, and that to the extent that any voters are undecided, they’re undecided about whether to vote at all, not who to vote for. Very few, if any, Warnock voters will switch their votes to Walker or vice versa, party operatives say.

Historically, Georgia runoffs see a steep drop in turnout from the general election. In 2008, just over half as many voters showed up for the Senate runoff as had for the general election just a month earlier. And in 2018, turnout for the secretary of state runoff was just over a third of what it had been in the general election. 

The 2021 runoff bucked this trend, with turnout falling just a few points — from 65 to 60 percent of registered voters — between the general election and Jan. 5. But that was because Senate control was on the line, the country was rapt in following Trump’s attempts to overturn his loss, and the parties funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into their efforts in Georgia.

None of that holds true now.

First of all, turnout is always lower in midterm elections. It was 52.6 percent in Georgia on Nov. 8, according to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Elections Project. It will likely be lower for the runoff, but it’s unclear how much lower.

Strong early vote numbers are a sign that this runoff is closer in character to the 2021 cycle than 2018, but changes in Georgia law that condensed the early voting period from previous years make an apples-to-apples comparison of the early vote difficult — and also have Democrats worried about their ability to show up like they did that cycle.

However, Republicans may have committed a tactical error in trying to block counties from allowing early voting the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Georgia state Supreme Court ultimately allowed counties to offer voting that day, but most of the locales that chose to do so were heavily Democratic, while many GOP-leaning counties did not offer the option. And Democratic strategists believe the resulting press coverage was helpful to their cause overall by giving them another piece of evidence to argue that Republicans wanted to suppress the vote.

Another challenge for Walker is motivating his supporters to show up even though control of the Senate is no longer at stake. 

Throughout the general election, Walker’s most compelling message was tying Warnock to Biden and congressional Democrats, specifically highlighting FiveThirtyEight’s assessment that Warnock voted 96 percent in line with Biden. For Republicans, a vote for Walker in the general could be seen as a vote for a GOP majority and a check on Biden.

Now, not only is the majority settled, but Republicans have also won back the House of Representatives, so the check on Biden many voters desired is settled as well. That will make it more difficult for Walker to nationalize the race, and easier for Warnock to reframe the contest as a choice between two candidates, rather than a referendum on Biden or the Democrats.

A candidate vs. candidate contest benefits Warnock because he is more popular in the state, and his supporters back him more enthusiastically. Because runoffs are largely questions of turnout rather than persuasion, a candidate with more passionate and positive supporters can have an advantage.

The Fabrizio Ward/Impact Research poll found Democrats were more likely to be “extremely motivated” to vote in the runoff (90 percent) than Republicans (85 percent) or independents (77 percent). And a Civiqs (D) online tracking poll from Nov. 29 also found Warnock to be more popular among Democrats — 93 percent favorable/4 percent unfavorable — than Walker was among Republicans — 73 percent favorable/12 percent unfavorable. 

An Oct. 26-30 Fox News poll found that while 63 percent of Warnock’s supporters backed him “enthusiastically,” just 49 percent of Walker’s said the same.

Other high-quality polling from before the general election indicated that Warnock is stronger among Democrats than Walker is among Republicans. 

An Oct. 30-Nov. 1 poll from Marist College found Warnock’s overall favorability rating among registered voters to be 48 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable, and among Democrats to be 93 percent/2 percent. Walker’s overall image was 42 percent/49 percent, and among Republicans was 79 percent/13 percent, indicating comparatively softer support from his own base. 

An Oct. 24-27 poll from the New York Times/Siena College pegged Warnock’s overall image at 49 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable, and at 89 percent/9 percent among Democrats, while Walker’s overall image clocked in at 39 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable, and Republicans viewed him favorably by a relatively weak 72/21 percent split. 

In an indication of the denationalization of the race in the closing weeks, the Walker campaign and its allies have pivoted from tying Warnock to Biden’s record to trying to bring down the Democrat’s image rating by highlighting negative stories about his divorce, and tying him to evictions at a residential building owned by Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock is the senior pastor. 

GOP sources acknowledge that, especially with the Senate majority already decided, policy attacks on Warnock have likely run their course. The shift in strategy is an acknowledgment that the race is now being fought over character issues. The hits are intended to muddy the waters after Warnock made character issues central to his campaign, and to potentially depress Democratic turnout.

One GOP source also emphasized the importance of reaching GOP voters who voted for Kemp but then left the Senate race blank or voted for the Libertarian. Overall, 17,484 more people voted in the gubernatorial race than in the Senate race. And Oliver, the Libertarian Senate nominee, received 53,202 more votes than the Libertarian in the gubernatorial race.

Georgians who left the race blank or voted for Oliver will be less likely to vote at all in the runoff, said the GOP strategist, but in a turnout election winning over that population should be a higher priority than trying to flip Warnock voters. 

The Money
Though much else is still uncertain, Democrats have a clear financial advantage in the runoff.

According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Warnock raised $52 million and spent $33 million from Oct. 20 to Nov. 16, and finished that period with $29 million in the bank. Walker reported raising $21 million, spending $16 million, and $9.8 million in the bank on the same date.

Warnock’s prodigious fundraising has allowed him to spend on creative ways to reach lower propensity voters, such as billboards, planes, and hundreds of paid organizers focused on college campuses.

Both parties are seriously contesting the runoff. But outside spending in this race pales in comparison to the vast sums spent in the 2021 runoff elections. 

Thus far, the two candidates and their allies have aired or reserved $67 million in TV and radio ads for the runoff through Nov. 30, per data from Kantar/CMAG, though that number may increase. Just $28 million of that is candidate spending, with the balance coming from outside groups.

By contrast, TV spending ahead of the 2021 runoffs exceeded $525 million.

Such a stark divergence is to be expected, for a number of reasons. Unlike in 2021, the Senate majority is not on the line. There is only one seat up for grabs, rather than the two in 2021. And the runoff period itself is half as long, leaving less time to air advertisements. 

The more notable difference may be that in 2022, Republicans do not have the massive spending advantage they had in 2020. At the moment, Democrats are actually set to outspend Republicans on both the candidate side and the independent expenditure side. (In 2021, the GOP had a massive outside spending lead but trailed in candidate spending.

Overall, Republican outside groups spent $183 million on TV and radio in the 2021 runoffs, and currently have just $14 million booked for this year, per Kantar/CMAG. Democratic outside groups spent $70 million on TV in the 2021 runoffs and have just $24.8 million booked for this year’s contest. 

Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC that carried most of the advertising weight for GOP Senate candidates this cycle, is the primary GOP outside group, with $14 million committed in TV ads. The NRA Victory Fund is chipping in $1.8 million, and the NRSC independent expenditure wing spent $600,000 early in the race.

On the Democratic side, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is spending $18.7 million through its Georgia Honor affiliate, while American Bridge, another Democratic super PAC, is chipping in $3.5 million. A smattering of other groups, such as VoteVets and Black PAC, combine for the final $2 million. 

At the candidate level, Warnock is currently outspending Walker by more than 2:1 on TV, with $19.2 million in reservations to Walker’s $8.7 million, according to Kantar/CMAG. 

Because candidates have access to lower advertising rates than outside groups, voters are seeing twice as many Democratic ads as they are GOP ads. Last cycle voters were exposed to about the same number of ads from each party.

Democrats are also massively outspending Republicans on digital advertising, accounting for 77 percent of the $4.3 million spent on Google ads in Georgia during the runoff. And in November, Warnock spent $2.8 million on Facebook ads compared to just $293,000 for Walker. 

Democratic independent expenditure groups also have an edge on non-TV spending. According to documents filed with the FEC through Nov. 30, Democratic outside groups have reported spending $22 million on non-TV or radio expenditures, compared to $13 million reported by GOP outside groups. 

Both candidates’ allies are directing their non-TV spending toward canvassing, digital advertising, and direct mail. Democratic groups are outspending their GOP counterparts $10.8 million to $4.6 million on canvassing and $6.7 million to $3.6 million on digital ads, while GOP groups are outspending Democratic groups on direct mail, $3.6 million to $2.4 million.

The Ads
The TV spending disparity between the two candidates is clear in the number of individual ads each campaign has run during the runoff: 22 for Warnock and just 6 for Walker. 

Two of Walker’s ads are positive spots focusing on the Republican’s character — one features now-deceased legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley. A third ad features NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines and Walker discussing how Gaines lost a race to a transgender swimmer. Two other spots are negative: highlighting reports of unsanitary conditions and evictions at an apartment building owned by Ebenezer Baptist Church and an accusation of domestic abuse lodged by his ex-wife. 

While many of Walker’s ads prior to the general election focused on economic issues and national Democrats such as Biden, his runoff ads are largely character-focused, both trying to burnish his own image and sully Warnock’s. 

Warnock has been running a character-focused campaign since well before the runoff, hammering a message that Walker is personally unqualified to be a senator and would be an embarrassment for Georgia. One notable new ad features Georgians reacting to a rambling speech Walker gave about vampires and werewolves. Many Warnock ads feature Georgia voters speaking directly to camera about their distrust of Walker.

Only one Warnock ad touches on a policy issue, insulin pricing, but within the larger context of a competency argument against Walker. To the extent that there has been any policy discussion it has come from outside groups, and sparingly.

Senate Majority PAC aired an ad focused primarily on abortion. An ad from the NRSC that aired early in the runoff hit Warnock on voting with Biden 96 percent of the time on “spending, taxes, energy.” And one ad from the National Rifle Association makes a nod to gun rights but is primarily concerned with alerting voters that there is an election happening.

That “alert” element is a common thread in many of the TV ads, indicating that the campaigns and their allies are mainly concerned with getting their own supporters to show up rather than changing peoples’ minds.

Both parties are also making appeals to Kemp supporters. The governor himself has cut two ads supporting Walker, one for SLF and one directly for the Walker campaign. The Warnock campaign is airing an ad featuring a middle-aged white woman who says she’s a lifelong Republican and Kemp supporter, but she’s voting for Warnock because of Walker’s character flaws.

Notably, while Warnock’s campaign ran several ads during the general election focusing on the accusations of domestic violence against Walker from his ex-wife, former girlfriend, and son, the Democrat has largely let Senate Majority PAC take the lead on those attacks in the runoff. Warnock is airing one English-language ad featuring the accusations in the closing week of the race, but most mentions are in Spanish-language ads that also tie Walker to Trump. (Warnock has run two Spanish-language ads while Walker has run none.)

The Trump Effect?
Trump himself has been less of a factor than last cycle. When he was still president, he campaigned in person in Georgia, strong-arming both Perdue and Loeffler into backing his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. And he made himself the center of attention by attempting to cajole Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into “finding” extra Trump votes so he could win the state.

This runoff, Trump appears to be staying away from the state. That has pleased Republican strategists, who are down on the former president following the party’s underperformance in the midterms, and who are looking askance at Trump’s dinner with white nationalists and anti-Semites earlier this month.

GOP voters in Georgia have also shown less allegiance to the former president than voters elsewhere. In the state’s primary elections earlier this year, most of Trump’s chosen candidates lost their races. Walker was one of just two statewide Trump picks to emerge victorious. But despite facing only token opposition, Walker did not win as much of the GOP primary vote as Kemp, who was facing a well-funded, Trump-backed challenge from Perdue.

Democrats are making some effort to introduce Trump as an issue. The Warnock campaign ran an ad that was just a clip of Trump’s 2024 presidential announcement praising Walker; the spot ended on the slogan: “Stop Donald Trump. Stop Herschel Walker.” And some of Warnock’s digital advertising features Trump. But overall, the primary focus on both sides of the aisle has been the two candidates themselves.

Biden has not played a large role in the runoff either. Other than an early NRSC ad, the president has gone largely unremarked upon by either party — a stark contrast to the general election, when Biden was at the fore of GOP attacks, and the 2021 runoff, when Biden was a headline campaigner for Warnock and Ossoff following his victory in the presidential election. This year, Warnock’s choice of closer is former President Barack Obama, who cut a 60-second ad for the senator and is campaigning for him in the final week.

The Bottom Line
A December Senate runoff following a midterm has little historical precedent. It may well be the platonic ideal of that old saw: “it’s all going to come down to turnout.” 

But heading into the final weekend, Warnock has accrued enough advantages that he appears slightly favored. He outran Walker in the general election, polling suggests he is more popular than Walker, and he and his allies are outspending Republicans on TV, digital platforms, and on canvassing efforts. Democrats’ biggest liabilities — Biden’s unpopularity, high inflation, and crime — failed to push Walker and many other Republicans to victory in November, and Republicans have largely abandoned those lines of attack in favor of litigating personal character, which hasn’t been enough to topple Warnock in the last two races.

Walker can still win this race. But at this point he is not an even money bet. Move from Toss-up to Tilt Democratic.