The outcome of the November 2022 US midterms is now clear. Republicans will narrowly take control of the House of Representatives. The Democrats managed to hold the Senate with a razor-thin majority of 50 to 49. There is one Senate seat still to be decided: Georgia.
Democrat Raphael Warnock secured 49.4% of the vote compared to Republican Herschel Walker’s 48.5% in Georgia’s Senate battle in early November. As no candidate achieved 50% of the vote, under Georgia state law the contest happens again on December 6.
The outcome will not affect which party controls the Senate, as in the event of a 50-50 tie Vice President Kamala Harris (a Democrat) will have the casting vote. But the result will have ramifications for the national political environment.
It will be another test of the influence former president Donald Trump holds within the Republican party. The runoff also presents Democrats with an opportunity to improve their Senate seat tally ahead of a difficult election cycle in 2024.
Trump’s handpicked candidate
Both the Democrat and Republican candidates in Georgia are well-established names in state and national politics. Raphael Warnock is a 53-year-old Baptist pastor and only the 11th black senator in US history.
Herschel Walker, a 60-year old African-American former professional football star, was handpicked by Trump in September 2021 to run for the Senate. Prior to the midterms, Walker’s campaign was rocked by repeated scandals over claims, which he denies, of domestic abuse and that he paid an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion.
This is Georgia’s second Senate runoff election in two years. In January 2021, the Democrats defeated both Republican incumbents in the state and in so doing won control of the Senate.
In the weeks leading up to the vote Trump and his defenders alleged voter fraud in the presidential election and questioned whether the January 2021 runoff would be fair. This threw the Republican strategy in Georgia into chaos, leaving some supporters thinking Trump had asked them to boycott the vote.
An election study following the 2021 run-off showed the impact Trump’s election denialism may have had on the January 2021 vote. The research showed that in “1,387 precincts that former President Trump won in November , turnout dropped by about 310,000 voters, including a 9% drop in white turnout, or about 227,000 white voters”.
There is already controversy over the voting process for the upcoming Georgia run-off. The state’s Republican governor Brian Kemp signed a law last year that means voters have a significantly shorter period of time to request, receive and cast votes. The early in-person voting period has been reduced from 16 days to a minimum of five.
Georgia Democrats sued the state government over its refusal to offer Saturday early voting. On November 21 a Georgia appeals court ruled in their favour, stating that counties could offer early voting.
Campaign cash pours in
Both parties are pouring millions of dollars into campaigning for the runoff. Democrats plan to spend US$7 million (£5.7 million) on support for Warnock. Republicans are spending around US$8 million on advertising to boost Walker’s chances.
Turnout will be key. In November’s contest, 3,964,926 votes were cast on a 57.02% turnout.
In his analysis of previous runoffs, Georgia-based political scientist Scott Buchanan has indicated that turnout for the runoffs declined compared with from the general election. Democrats will be wary of this and the impact another election will have on an exhausted electorate, as the party works to energise its base of mainly black voters, ahead of the December vote.
The Democrats have a daunting set of Senate election battles in 2024. Among the 23 seats the party must defend, its incumbent senators in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia face the greatest battles. These three states were comfortable wins for Trump in the 2020 presidential race.
There are several other vulnerable Democrat seats, and the party could have a difficult task maintaining control of the Senate. A Warnock victory in Georgia would bolster the Democrats with a two-seat majority heading into the 2024 election cycle.
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A win in Georgia will also give Democrats more flexibility to control their legislative agenda in the Senate without having to depend on the vice-president. It also gives the party the ability to progress bills and presidential nominees more easily. Crucially, an additional Senate Democrat allows the party to pass bills even if a member of its party rebels.
This is important. For the past two years Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, had huge sway over Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, and was able to demand the removal of certain provisions from the final bill. A 51-49 majority in the Senate grants the Democrats’ leadership with a degree of protection against a repeat of this.
With less than two weeks before the vote, polls are showing the Democrat candidate holding a slight lead. A poll for the non-profit AARP had Warnock on 51%, with Walker on 47%.
This will exacerbate Republican concerns as they await Trump’s decision on whether to become involved in Walker’s campaign. Trump, who has already announced a third bid for the presidency, is facing unprecedented criticism from many Republicans who blame him for their poor showing in the midterms.
A “red wave” did not take place, and a large number of Republican candidates who showed fealty to Donald Trump by repeating his falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election ended up losing their races.
Midterm election exit polls showed that Trump may now be a liability to Republicans seeking national or state-wide elected office, with only 39% viewing the former president favourably with 58% holding an unfavourable view. There are now fears his intervention in Georgia could discourage independents and suburban women to vote Republican as well as depressing turnout among moderate Republicans.
When asked about the December runoff, Erick Erickson, a prominent Georgia-based conservative radio host and Trump supporter, said: “The No. 1 question I’ve been getting is, ‘Is Trump going to screw Herschel Walker’s election campaign up?’.”