Democrats are feeling optimistic about winning Tuesday’s Senate runoff in Georgia between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and GOP challenger Herschel Walker, a victory that would give the party a 51st seat.
There are a number of reasons for the high hopes.
The party thinks it has a top candidate in Warnock, a reverend who serves as senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the former pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr.
Warnock won a runoff in 2021, and he received more votes than Walker on Election Day.
Walker, endorsed by former President Trump, has been battered by controversies throughout the campaign, and his links to Trump may be hurting him more than they are helping him in the contest.
While Democrats expect the final tally will be close, many in and outside Georgia say the early voting numbers and momentum from November also are highly positive signs for Warnock and his party.
“I am very bullish on Georgia. No BS,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “I know it’s close, but the early-voting turnout is very promising.”
Early voter turnout is key for Democrats because Republicans are expected to have an edge in Tuesday’s voting.
A survey by Emerson College and The Hill late last week found Warnock with a 2-point lead. Among those surveyed who had already voted, Warnock had a 29-point advantage.
“Looking at where most of the early-voting is happening … by my analysis and what I’ve read, looks really promising,” added Van Hollen, who chaired the Senate Democratic campaign arm during the 2018 midterms.
Warnock won a victory in a Senate runoff election against Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) in January 2021, the same day Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) won his runoff. That gave Democrats the Senate majority in a 50-50 chamber by virtue of Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
A victory this year would give Democrats more wiggle room.
Democrats note that in the 2021 runoffs, Ossoff and Warnock both had more time to campaign.
“I don’t think he’s taken anything for granted,” one Democratic operative with ties to the state said of Warnock. “You have to operate always like you’re down. There’s no other posture to take.”
In the four weeks since the midterm elections, Warnock’s campaign has fine-tuned its ground game, media and advertising apparatuses. A source close to the campaign says they have made contact with “millions” of additional voters through a door-to-door canvassing effort.
They have also added hundreds of new staffers specifically for the Dec. 6 contest and have increased their youth turnout operation through visits to the University of Georgia, Emory University and other state and local institutions.
Young voters proved to be a key part of Democrats’ success during the midterms after they overwhelmingly turned out to vote blue.
Warnock has barnstormed counties around Atlanta and worked to chip away at rural areas held by the GOP. He also stumped heavily during the fall holiday season, an investment that his campaign argues stands in contrast to Walker, who has been less visible on the trail in recent weeks.
The Democratic strategist familiar with Georgia politics said Warnock’s success with the extra day of early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving brought more than 70,000 voters to the polls.
“Georgia is a tough state for Democrats, but I feel good about the organizing work and the mobilizing we’ve done,” said Terrance Woodbury, an Atlanta-based political consultant and CEO of HIT Strategies. “I feel confident about tomorrow.”
Woodbury started conducting focus groups the week after the midterms to try to assess who might surge to the polls in a runoff.
He found that while Warnock is popular among infrequent voters, Walker’s vulnerabilities are an even greater mobilizing force. “They’re voting just to stop him,” he said of some voters drawn to the polls in opposition to Walker and Trump.
There are a number of other reasons for the Democratic optimism.
Walker was boosted in November by having Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on top of the ticket.
Kemp cruised to a reelection victory, winning more than 203,000 more votes than Walker, who won’t have that kind of help driving voters to the polls on Tuesday.
Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams, a progressive who may have driven some Republicans to the polls. Some Democrats privately now are expressing relief that Abrams is not on the ticket this time, speculating that she could have worked to boost turnout among conservatives.
Walker’s warts as a candidate also have continued to emerge. Over the weekend, an ex-girlfriend went on the record to accuse him of abusive behavior during their relationship. There have been previous reports that Walker paid for an abortion in 2009 despite now being staunchly anti-abortion.
“It’s not looking so hot for the home team,” said one GOP operative involved in Senate races. “The candidate’s put his foot in his mouth a handful of times and Democrats have unlimited resources. It just rained down on television every single day in the Atlanta media market. It just happens to be where Republicans struggle the most with moderate voters.”
Another problem for Republicans? The race won’t determine the majority in the Senate. That may keep some Republican voters at home.
“There’s no doubt that if the majority was in question that there’d be even more energy in trying to mobilize people to get out to vote. There’s no doubt that would have added to the enthusiasm,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Georgia-based GOP fundraiser who served as chief of staff for former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R).
Some Republicans do think Democrats are celebrating too early.
While Warnock has a sizable fundraising total and top surrogates including former President Obama, who recently campaigned on his behalf, one notable GOP senator believes Walker could prevail as voters learn more about his opponent.
“We’re continuing to define Warnock,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“He’s got big rallies, so I think that’s why he’s going to win,” Scott said of Walker. “There’s a lot of energy.”