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Parties gear up for runoff in Georgia, the last outstanding Senate race

Nov. 13, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 13, 2022 at 9:39 a.m.

By Sabrina Rodriguez and Annie Linskey The Washington Post

ATLANTA - The vast political machinery that just fought the Senate race between Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker to a near draw is ramping up again for a runoff election - the second in less than two years - but this time the outcome will not determine which party will control the U.S. Senate.

Democrats will maintain their slim majority in the Senate, securing a 50th seat on Saturday after Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was projected to win reelection. On Friday night, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly (D) was projected to win reelection. Republicans needed to win two of the three outstanding races to take the Senate.

It is not immediately clear how the resolution of which party will control the Senate will affect the intensity of campaigning for the Georgia runoff. When state election officials announced Wednesday that neither Warnock nor Walker had won 50 percent of the vote as required for an outright win and that the race would be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff, Republicans and Democrats began funneling money for ads and field operations into Georgia in an effort to persuade voters to go back to the polls.

Warnock was getting help from a top Democratic group that has begun airing new television ads in Georgia, while liberal groups are lining up to mobilize voters. Walker allies included a top Republican group preparing to launch an aggressive ground game and a separate conservative group that started knocking on doors the day after Tuesday’s elections.

Even though Democrats have held their majority in the Senate, with Vice President Harris able to cast tiebreaking votes, picking up a 51st vote in Georgia would offer a cushion for key legislation. During the past two years, Democrats have been unable to move forward with some agenda items, including voting rights and a sweeping climate and social spending bill, because they couldn’t always get the votes of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

Kendra Cotton, chief executive of New Georgia Project, a civic engagement organization, said it would be “super shortsighted” for Democrats not to make an aggressive play for Warnock - who won the seat in a January 2021 special election runoff - to be elected to a full six-year term. He is Georgia’s first Black senator and the first Black Democratic senator to represent a former Confederate state.

“It’s like if you’re playing a football game and you’re winning by three and you have the opportunity to score a touchdown - and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, I’m already winning by three,’ but there’s like 10 minutes on the clock,” Cotton said. “You look stuck on stupid. Score a touchdown.”

Warnock, who led Walker by more than 35,000 votes in Tuesday’s election, has sought to reassure his supporters that he’s been in this scenario before and “we know how to win a runoff.”

Walker, whose candidacy has been plagued with scandals, including allegations of domestic abuse and that he paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions, is the only Republican on the statewide ticket who didn’t win on Tuesday night. He is telling his supporters that this is “the most important election of your lifetime.”

Georgia Honor, a group tied to the Senate Majority PAC aligned with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), on Saturday started airing a new ad attacking Walker’s character. The 30-second ad calls Walker “unfit for office,” saying he’s a liar with a “long record of violence toward women.” The ad campaign is backed by a $4 million purchase, the group said.

“We’re all in to help Reverend Warnock hold the line and we intend to communicate in every way possible to Georgia voters that Herschel Walker is unfit and unprepared to serve them in the United States Senate,” Veronica Yoo, spokeswoman for Senate Majority PAC, said in a statement.

While national Republicans flocked to Georgia to stump for Walker, state Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp, largely kept their distance from him during the general election campaign. That was most acutely on display the night before the election, when Kemp hosted a rally with most of the statewide GOP ticket and Walker opted to host his own rally nearby.

But Georgia Republicans have quickly closed ranks around Walker ahead of the runoff. “I’m committed to helping the whole ticket,” Kemp said Wednesday in an interview with Channel 2, a local Atlanta TV station.

The super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is teaming up with Kemp to back Walker. Kemp has agreed to share his ground data and analytics operation, which includes door-knocking and phone-banking, with the Senate Leadership Fund, a spokesperson for the super PAC confirmed.

The Senate Leadership Fund is funding the operation that will cost more than $2 million. It’s the first time the super PAC has ever funded a ground operation, the spokesperson said.

“Governor Kemp wrote the playbook for how to win big in Georgia, and we are thrilled to partner with his top-notch team to elect Herschel Walker to the Senate,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund.

Kemp on Tuesday night won his reelection bid against Democrat Stacey Abrams by more than seven points, garnering 2.1 million votes. Walker received 1.9 million votes.

Walker’s support largely came from White voters, as 70 percent voted for him, according to early exit polling. Warnock’s coalition was significantly more diverse: He won 90 percent of Black voters, 58 percent of Latinos and 59 percent of Asian American voters, the exit poll shows. Warnock also received support from a majority of women and voters under 44.

Warnock’s campaign is betting that its diverse coalition will deliver for him again - just as it did in 2021. The senator will continue traveling across the state, focused on delivering a bipartisan message, a campaign spokesperson said. That strategy clearly worked, the spokesperson said, noting that a large number of split-ticket voters backed Kemp and Warnock on Tuesday. Warnock’s team is aiming to turn out the Democratic base while still attempting to appeal to voters across the ideological spectrum, the spokesperson added.

Warnock is completing the term left vacant by former senator Johnny Isakson, who stepped down for health reasons in 2019 and died last year. Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate after Isakson’s resignation, and she ultimately lost to Warnock.

In his campaign for the 2020 special election and the subsequent runoff, Warnock used his background as a pastor - he’s currently senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which served as a home base for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - to connect with voters on kitchen-table issues. A campaign spokesperson said that approach will remain unchanged this time.

On Thursday, Warnock projected confidence he could win the runoff.

“Now, we all knew this election would be close but I’ve done this before. We’ve done this before. We know how to win a runoff,” Warnock said in remarks in front of a downtown Atlanta mural honoring John Lewis (D-Ga.), the late civil rights icon and congressman. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. And they’re going to throw every dollar at us that they can. Every lie. Every attack.”

“But I think we have something better: We have the truth. We have hope for the future,” he added.

Walker’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Looming over the runoff is whether former president Donald Trump and President Biden will visit Georgia to stump for their party’s candidates.

Walker and Republicans have long sought to tie Warnock to Biden, who has a low approval rating in the state. Biden stayed away from Georgia in the final weeks of the election as he headed to other battleground states, including Pennsylvania. Former president Barack Obama was the only national Democrat to come campaign with Warnock.

Walker on Thursday night renewed his attack on Warnock, repeating a line he’s said often on the campaign trail that the senator “voted with Joe Biden 96 percent of the time.” He also went on to tie Warnock not only to Biden, but to other high-profile Democrats who have drawn the ire of the Republican base.

“This is the most important election of your lifetime. … We don’t want to have Kamala Harris making decisions for us. We don’t even want Sen. Warnock making any more decisions for us,” Walker said to a mostly White crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in Canton, Ga. “The way you end this is by putting Herschel Walker in the Senate.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who stumped with Walker at the Canton rally, called on Biden and Democrats, such as Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), to come campaign in Georgia during the rally - and repeated it afterward to reporters.

“What does it tell you that Raphael Warnock is hiding from the president of the United States?” Cruz said. “Raphael Warnock’s record in Washington is wildly out of step with the values of the people of Georgia.”

On the campaign trail, Warnock often talks about working across the aisle to deliver for Georgians. Leading up to the election, he frequently told a story about how he worked with Cruz on an amendment to the bipartisan infrastructure package that designates the planned extension of Interstate 14 a high-priority corridor.

Throughout much of his campaign, Warnock largely steered clear of mentioning the former football star, but in the final weeks before the election, as polling put them in a dead heat, he became more vocal in attacking Walker, calling him unfit for office.

“This race is about competence and it’s about character. When it comes to that, the choice could not be more clear between me and Herschel Walker,” Warnock said at his event Thursday. “Some things in life are complicated. This ain’t one of them.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Thursday announced that it would spend $7 million on field operations, namely door-to-door canvassing, during the next four weeks. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday was first to spend on ads for the runoff, reserving $234,000 for television spots, according to media-tracking service AdImpact.

Ralph Reed, president of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the group’s canvassers started knocking on doors the day after the election.

Faith and Freedom Coalition is aiming to knock on 400,000 doors targeting the homes of mid- to low-propensity evangelical voters, said Reed, who is supporting Walker. The group will also make 1 million calls to get out the vote and provide voter guides in 5,200 churches. Reed said the group was also leading Hispanic and African American faith efforts with bilingual voter guides and plans to hold “Souls to the Polls” caravans.

“It is clearly one of the single most consequential U.S. Senate races in the post-WWII period. That will fire up the conservative grass roots,” Reed said.

In the days since the election, New Georgia Project, has raised more than $700,000, Cotton said. She said that both New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund need $2.5 million to execute a runoff plan to knock on 400,000 doors, make 100,000 calls and send 250,000 text messages to voters, as well as launch a mail and ad campaign. The group plans to start implementing its strategy on Monday. Warnock is a former board chairman of the group.

Somos PAC, a liberal group focused on mobilizing Latino voters, on Friday announced it would invest more than $2 million in helping Warnock win the runoff with plans to send out bilingual mailers and run ads. The group has been active in Arizona and Nevada leading up to the midterms.

“We are ramping up our efforts to ensure the people of Georgia send Sen. Raphael Warnock back to Washington D.C.,” said Melissa Morales, founder and president of Somos PAC.

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