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Runoff 2.0

Voters in Arizona and Nevada Could Decide Who Wins Georgia’s Senate Seat

If control of the upper chamber is determined before the Peach State’s upcoming runoff election, it could complicate Herschel Walker’s path to victory.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Senator Raphael Warnock on election night

In a cycle with 35 Senate elections, control of that chamber comes down to a best of three: The races in Arizona and Nevada remain too close to call, while the Georgia Senate race is headed to a December 6 runoff. 

In 2020, control of the U.S. Senate came down to two runoff elections in Georgia. For weeks, the Peach State became the epicenter of U.S. politics, with the parties and their allies pouring more than $800 million into the fight, making the two contests the most expensive Senate races ever. Democrats Raphael Warner and Jon Ossoff eventually won, leaving the Senate evenly split at 50–50. But with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking votes, Democrats hold the nominal majority.

Whether Georgians can expect that same level of attention this time will depend in part on the outcomes in Arizona and Nevada: Sweeping the two races would give either party Senate control, while a split would set up a rerun of the 2020 finale. Those races’ resolutions, in other words, may have a profound effect on Georgia’s runoff.

To this point, Republicans have failed to gain any Senate seats, while Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman flipped a GOP-held seat. That leaves Democrats with 48 seats (not including Arizona and Nevada, where incumbents Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto await their fates) and Republicans with 49. Warnock narrowly earned more votes than Walker on Election Day but could not crack the 50 percent threshold to win outright, hence the runoff.

That gives Warnock extra reason to root for his two endangered colleagues. If Kelly and Cortez Masto prevail, the Georgia race will still be closely watched but will no longer have the urgency—or the financial investment—that it would if Senate control was at stake. That could hinder Walker’s chances, as GOP Senate control has been one of his key selling points.

Walker has been a flawed candidate from the start. He has a history of domestic violence, and his candidacy was rocked by revelations that he had several unacknowledged children. Walker’s campaign was further roiled by multiple reports in October that he had paid for one former girlfriend to have an abortion and pressured another to undergo the procedure. But former President Donald Trump’s support pulled him through the primary campaign, and many Republicans lined up behind him because Senate control was at stake. When GOP Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rick Scott of Florida campaigned for Walker in October, for example, they pitched him as a bulwark against Biden in a GOP Senate.

“Herschel Walker will pump the brakes on the Biden agenda,” Cotton told reporters. “He will deliver, with the Republican majority in Congress, an economy that does work for Americans.” But that premise falls apart if Republicans don’t control the Senate. And if he isn’t the decisive vote, what motivation will skeptical Republicans in Georgia have to turn out for him in December?

“In a world where Democrats control the Senate no matter what, Republican voters who supported Walker as a majority-maker might be less inclined to vote for him in the runoff,” Stephen Fowler, a political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting, told me. “If the stakes of the election are now ‘Who represents Georgia for six years?’ instead of ‘Will my party control the Senate and be able to support/stymie the Democratic agenda?’ the calculus may be different, especially because we have already seen a sizable number of Republicans say they can’t and won’t support Walker.”

The beleaguered Senate candidate significantly underperformed Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who easily won reelection, defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams with 53.4 percent of the vote, earning more than 2.1 million votes. Walker received 48.5 percent of the vote, with 1.9 million votes. These numbers indicate some split-ticket voting, with perhaps thousands of Georgians supporting both Kemp and Warnock.

Some Republicans who supported Kemp may have opted to vote for Libertarian Chase Oliver in the Senate race, who notched more than 80,000 votes—50,000 more than the Libertarian gubernatorial candidate. With neither Kemp nor a Senate majority on the ballot in December, these ticket-splitting supporters may just stay home for the runoff. Other Republicans who may have held their nose and voted for Walker because he would be the decisive fifty-first vote for a Republican majority could also stay home.

Warnock could also face some level of apathy if he would merely pad an existing Democratic majority—or, in a worst-case scenario for Democrats in which Kelly and Cortez Masto both lose, a minority. But he doesn’t have to worry about persuading a skeptical base to support him.

One extra incentive for Democratic partisans: A fifty-first Democratic seat in the Senate would have real practical benefits. Under the current 50–50 breakdown, Senate committees have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, meaning that GOPers can slow down judicial and Cabinet confirmations and potentially vote down subpoenas.

“We have seen what life under a 50–50 Senate looks like,” said Democratic strategist Tré Easton, pointing to the outsize influence a senator “with a bee in their bonnet” can wield in an evenly divided chamber. A 51-seat majority would give Democrats the slightest bit of leeway when voting on bills that would not have the support of, say, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who has shown a willingness to buck his party.

Republicans picking up Arizona or Nevada, however, would mean a different ball game.

It would mean a “repeat of 2020, where all hands will be on deck,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “If it’s the fiftieth [seat], Republicans will try to match Democrats pound for pound,” Gillespie said.

One key difference from two years ago: A law enacted last year moved the special election date from January to December, shortening the amount of time candidates have (both to educate voters about the change and to mobilize them to vote). It also situated the Thanksgiving holiday squarely in the middle of that campaign period.

The contest between Warnock and Walker was already the second-most-expensive of the cycle, with the candidates and outside groups spending more than $271 million. Warnock significantly outspent Walker, laying out more than $76 million to Walker’s $32 million as of mid-October, when the most recent reports were filed. If the Senate is at stake next month, that number could skyrocket.

“We know that if control of the Senate hinges on the runoff outcome in Georgia, we’ve run that playbook before,” Easton said.