United States Senate elections may soon be the state of Georgia’s third largest industry. Sure, financial and professional services are the runaway leaders, and Coke sells 1.9 billion servings each day. True, some of the tens of millions of dollars spent on bombarding the state with TV and digital ads ends up in local pockets, but the bulk of it goes to out-of-town consultants. Yet the runoff now underway between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will be the sixth Georgia Senate vote in two years—not including party primaries. Warnock has essentially been campaigning for three straight years.
What’s actually creating the nonstop cycle of neck and neck contests is the fact that Georgia has become a microcosm of the political polarization that stretches across the country. Georgia’s particulars don’t track identically with US demographics: For instance, the state has a far higher percentage of Black residents (33%) than does the country as a whole (13%). But in its mix of older, rural, less-educated Republican regions and younger, urban and suburban college-educated Democratic areas, the state’s politics are coming to personify the larger split. And Walker’s ever-accumulating baggage—Chinese air! Secret children! Vampires!—is a test of how much statewide contests have become about partisanship and almost nothing else. “Georgia has slowly been moving away from being a red state since the ’80s,” says Mike Madrid. The Republican political strategist spent a great deal of time studying Georgia in 2020 in his work with the Lincoln Project, trying to help (successfully) flip it from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. “Its suburbs are some of the most diverse in the country—Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islanders—and the white college-educated suburbanites are a lot more amenable to voting across party lines. And then there’s the Marjorie Taylor Greene element, deep red districts. Georgia is America—only more.”
The rapid-fire series of tight contests has turned Georgia into something of a political laboratory. “Whether it was Nevada or Michigan or Pennsylvania or a congressional in Ohio, the tactics that came out of the last Georgia runoff were critical and helpful and instrumental in us having an extremely productive midterm election,” says Davis Leonard, a cofounder of Relentless, a firm that essentially paid people to talk to their friends about politics and worked to help Democrat Jon Ossoff win a Georgia Senate runoff in 2021. Leonard and her firm are back working in Georgia on behalf of Warnock. “We have been able to experiment in Georgia, and that led to proving relational organizing works at scale.”
The current Warnock-Walker runoff is singular in some respects: It’s a byproduct of rules dating back to 19th-century segregationist attempts to dilute the Black vote. But the contest is emblematic of wider modern Republican attempts, employed around the country, to suppress voting. After Warnock narrowly defeated Kelly Loeffler in a nine-week runoff campaign that ended on January 6, 2021, Georgia governor Brian Kemp shortened the campaign period to four weeks bracketing Thanksgiving and essentially eliminated the ability to register new voters during that period. Then state officials tried to shrink the number of dates for early voting; Democrats won a court challenge blocking that effort. “The Republicans have weaponized the administrative process,” says LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of the Atlanta-based group Black Voters Matter. “That’s what concerns me.”
Kemp is a factor in other ways. In the general election, about 200,000 Georgians split their ticket, supporting Kemp but not Walker. Keeping those voters away from Walker is crucial to Warnock in the runoff. But the governor, who kept his distance from Walker during the run-up to November, has stumped for the former football star this time around. And Kemp, who won reelection to a second term by defeating Stacey Abrams again this month, has also turned over his voter data and campaign field workers to Walker’s runoff effort.
Warnock’s campaign is fighting not just Walker, but against voter fatigue and confusion. “When we knock on doors, we hear from voters, ‘I voted already,’ meaning two weeks ago in the general election,” says Yadira Sanchez, the executive director of Poder Latinx, a nonpartisan group that specializes in Latino turnout and is aiming to visit 20,000 households before the December 6 runoff. “That just requires us to go deeper into sharing the runoff process and what’s at stake in this election.”
Latino and Black turnout was down slightly in Georgia’s general election, a worrisome sign for Warnock’s team in the runoff. Another drag on voter motivation is that the Democrats, thanks to Catherine Cortez Masto’s reelection in Nevada, have already assured themselves a Senate majority—unlike in 2020, when the margin hinged on the results in Georgia’s runoff. All of which is why Warnock’s campaign is looking for a perverse boost from Trump. Following the former president’s announcement that he would be running again in 2024, Warnock’s campaign cut a 30-second TV ad consisting almost entirely of quotes in which Trump praised Walker. “Do we think Trump getting involved in Georgia helps us?” a Warnock operative says. “Well, look at it another way: Walker hasn’t used those clips of Trump talking about him. What does that tell you?” One thing it tells us is that the Georgia runoff, just like the hundreds of other midterm races already concluded elsewhere, will be part of an ongoing, indirect referendum on Trump.