What to watch in Tuesday's Georgia U.S. Senate runoff election
ATLANTA (AP) — The extended Senate campaign in Georgia gives Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker a second chance to persuade voters to send them to Washington. But without party control of Congress at stake and absent other candidates on the ticket, the runoff looks different from the November general election.
The results of the AP VoteCast survey illustrate some of the challenges each candidate faces on Tuesday. Walker will need to turn out a GOP base that wasn’t enamored with him to start with, and do it without the more popular Gov. Brian Kemp on the ballot. Warnock must get his coalition of some lower-propensity voting groups to turn out.
And both candidates have to motivate voters despite a predetermined balance of power in Washington.
The wide-ranging VoteCast survey of more than 3,200 midterm voters in the state provides a detailed look at the Warnock and Walker coalitions and the attitudes that defined their choices this year. The data reveals advantages — and disadvantages — for both candidates in the runoff.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Fifty-four percent of Georgia midterm voters said they considered party control of the Senate to be the primary factor in their vote in the general election. But that’s no longer at stake.
Democrats flipped a Republican-held Senate seat in Pennsylvania to maintain their thin advantage in the chamber without relying on the outcome in Georgia.
In the general, many supporters of both candidates were motivated by party control, and they’ll need to be persuaded to vote a second time around when it doesn’t hang in the balance.
It’s a challenge for Walker in particular, whose supporters were slightly more likely than Warnock’s to say control of the Senate was their chief consideration, 57% vs. 52%. A Walker victory in the Senate would keep the 50-50 status quo, but Democrats maintain control with Vice President Kamala Harris ’ tie-breaking vote.
Walker benefits from Georgia’s Republican-leaning tendencies, but Kemp didn't carry Walker when they were both at the top of the ticket four weeks ago. In fact, Walker’s vote tallies fell more than 200,000 short of his fellow Republican’s, which might suggest he has a harder time getting Republicans out for him without Kemp on the ballot.
While 7 in 10 Kemp voters said they enthusiastically backed the governor, only about half of Walker’s voters said they were enthusiastically supporting Walker. Among Walker supporters, about 4 in 10 said they backed him with reservations and about 1 in 10 said they were simply opposing the other candidates.
“I’ve got some reservations, I’m not 100% Walker, but he is a hell of lot better than what we’ve got up there now with Warnock in there,” said Donny Richardson, a retired Marine who voted for Walker last week in Marietta. "Things need to change.”
Warnock has more work to do in a state that resoundingly reelected Kemp over two-time Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams and elected exclusively Republican statewide constitutional officers.
That’s especially true when Warnock may have been helped by Republicans who decided not to support Walker but showed up in the general to vote for other Republicans, including their governor. Fifteen percent of moderate and liberal Republicans backed Warnock. Eleven percent of Kemp voters supported Warnock or another candidate, including Libertarian Chase Oliver, compared with just 3% of Abrams voters bucking Warnock.
Warnock and Walker both amassed familiar Democratic and Republican constituencies in last month’s election. But there were signs that Walker did worse than his fellow Republican Kemp among groups that were core to the governor's success, including white voters and voters in small towns and rural areas. College-educated men and women without a college degree were evenly divided in the Senate race, but both groups went decisively for Kemp in the governor’s race.
And most white Protestant voters backed the Republican candidate in both races, but Kemp won them by a wider margin than Walker did.
Warnock won majorities of young voters, Black voters, women, college graduates and suburbanites. Warnock also picked up about two-thirds of ideologically moderate voters.
CHARACTER AND INTEGRITY
The final stretch of campaign featured harsh insults from each candidate on his competitor’s character and integrity. Voters in the general were more skeptical about Walker than Warnock, though neither candidate earned glowing marks.
Fifty-six percent of Georgia voters said the incumbent senator “has the right experience to serve effectively” in the job, compared with just 39% saying that of Walker, a 60-year-old political novice.
“I think Herschel Walker is incompetent and Raphael Warnock has more experience, and I think he’ll get the job done," said Lolita Baylor, an executive assistant at JCPenney who lives in Morrow. She voted for Warnock.
Voters also were more likely to think Warnock has strong moral values compared with Walker, 53% vs. 43%.
Those critiques of Walker didn’t keep some voters from backing him the first time around, though it might eat into his support in a runoff. About a third of his own supporters said he didn’t have the right experience and about a quarter said he lacks strong moral values.
Walker’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump helped him earn the party’s nomination, but that may have stunted his success among the state’s general electorate.
Biden’s razor-thin 2020 win in the state led Trump to falsely claim the results were rigged and to suggest Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” the votes needed to hand Trump a victory. Georgia’s voters reelected Kemp and Raffensperger despite Trump’s attempts to promote other candidates.
While Walker overwhelmingly won midterm “MAGA” voters — those who say they support the “Make America Great Again” movement — 43% of voters last month said Walker supports Trump too much. Fewer said Kemp or Raffensperger supports Trump too much, though somewhat more said they support Trump too little.
“He’s not a politician," said Kat Shreve of Walker. The nonprofit manager in Marietta backed Warnock. Walker's “a puppet of the Trump administration,” she said.
Sixteen percent of Republican voters who don’t identify as MAGA supporters backed Warnock in the general.
Even if Trump is not the draw he once was, opposition to his rival might be enough for Walker to convince voters to get back to the ballot box.
Overall, only about half of Walker voters said their vote was meant to signify support for Trump, but far more — about three-quarters — said their vote was in opposition to President Joe Biden. Walker has stressed Warnock's ties to the president throughout the campaign.
“Let’s just say he's much better than the Biden guy. Warnock has been. ‘Yes sir, Mr. Biden,'" said Jim Howle, a retired voter for Walker. Warnock's "not representing the people."
Fingerhut reported from Washington.