Voters in Georgia head to the polls once again Tuesday to decide the final race of the U.S. midterm elections: a run-off for the state’s Senate seat that could have lasting implications on national politics.
The closely-watched contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will determine whether the Democrats grow their advantage in the Senate or if the chamber remains evenly split.
It also tests Democrats’ continued gains in what has long been a deeply conservative state, and whether former president Donald Trump — who backs Walker — still has political sway as he mounts another bid for the White House.
After an extremely close result on election day in November, voters will once again have to decide between Warnock, a pastor who has held the seat since 2021, and Walker, a football legend and political novice who has sparked controversy for his views and multiple scandals.
The latest polls show Warnock with a slight lead of four to five points. Mail-in ballots and early voting also suggest the Democrat has an advantage — but Walker still has a chance.
Here’s everything to know about this high-profile election.
How did we get here?
Under Georgia election laws, a winning candidate must earn at least 50 per cent of the vote to be elected outright. If that doesn’t happen, the top two candidates go head-to-head in a winner-take-all run-off.
The extremely close results on Nov. 8 saw Warnock earn the most votes with 49.4 per cent of all ballots cast, with just 36,000 votes separating him from Walker. Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver picked up the remaining two per cent of the vote.
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The result was a case of deja vu for Warnock, who is running for his first full six-year term. In 2020, he earned the most votes against Republican Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to finish the remainder of retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, but no one earned 50 per cent.
Warnock and Loeffler later faced each other in a run-off in January 2021 — one day before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — that saw Warnock come out on top. His election, along with the runoff victory of fellow Georgian Democrat Jon Ossoff, secured Democrats’ control of the Senate for the first time since 2015. Warnock and Ossoff were also the first Democrats elected to the Senate from Georgia in 20 years.
What’s at stake?
After Warnock and Ossoff were elected, the Senate was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote giving Democrats control.
That split made passing legislation tricky: in addition to having to secure at least 10 Republican votes for some bills to overcome a filibuster rule, some centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also had to be appeased in order for the party to stay united.
With Democratic control already secured on Nov. 8 by John Fetterman’s flip of a Republican seat in Pennsylvania, a win for Warnock could give the Democrats an extra vote in the chamber.
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That lowers the stakes for Tuesday’s runoff, experts say, which could spell trouble for Walker.
“(Republican voters) were told (before Nov. 8) that a vote for Herschel Walker would be a step towards putting Republicans in control of the Senate,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
“That argument is off the table now. So some of those people who voted for him but were conflicted about it, they might sit this one out.”
Bullock says many voters likely held their noses while casting ballots for Walker because they “put party over candidate quality” — referring to the many scandals the Republican has faced since becoming the nominee.
Two women have accused Walker of encouraging them to get abortions and paying for them, despite his hardline pro-life stance on the campaign trail. The women have provided documentation showing they were in romantic relationships with Walker at the time, and that he signed cards and cheques for them. Walker has vehemently denied the allegations.
Walker has also faced multiple allegations of domestic violence, lying about his academic achievements and business history, exaggerating his experience as an honorary sheriff’s deputy, and even that he actually lives in Texas instead of Georgia.
Warnock has mostly refused to comment on the specific allegations. But recent Democratic ads have highlighted another aspect of Walker: his tendency to go off-script during rallies and tell long-winded, sometimes nonsensical stories about everything from bulls to vampires and werewolves to “bad air” in China.
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In his argument to voters, Warnock has repeatedly said their choice comes down to “character and competence.”
“If you think you’re tired now, imagine having Herschel Walker represent you for six years,” Warnock told a news conference last week.
“When you consider my opponent, this is not about Democrat and Republican. This is about right and wrong. And Herschel Walker is wrong for Georgia.”
Walker’s campaign has focused on tying Warnock to Biden, who has a 40 per cent approval rating in Georgia. He has pointed to Warnock’s voting record as proof he supports a “socialist” Democratic agenda that isn’t supported by residents.
His attacks on Warnock’s character include resurfaced abuse allegations from Warnock’s ex-wife, who is seen in police body camera footage calling the longtime pastor “a great actor.” Police determined there was no proof of any abuse and no charges were ever filed, while Warnock says the allegations stemmed from an ugly separation.
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Who could win?
A CNN poll released Friday suggests 52 per cent of voters will choose Warnock, compared to 48 per cent favouring Walker.
The University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Public Opinion on Monday found that lead may hold, giving Walker 51 per cent over Walker’s 46 per cent.
Bullock also points to another disadvantage for Walker: his unpopularity compared to other Republicans in the state.
Gov. Brian Kemp won re-election by more than 300,000 votes, while Republicans swept all other state offices that were on the ballot in November.
“Kemp’s not on the ticket this time, so he can’t provide Walker the coattails he might need to help him along,” Bullock said.
Trump’s seal of approval could also hurt Walker. The CNN poll on Friday found only 39 per cent of Georgia voters approve of the former president. Even worse, although 81 per cent of voters surveyed who favoured Trump but disapproved of Biden said they would vote for Walker, that group accounted for only 37 per cent of the electorate in the poll.
The Warnock campaign and other Democrats, meanwhile, have outspent Walker and Republicans by a more than two-to-one margin.
As of Friday, more than 1.85 million early ballots have been cast either in-person or by mail — shattering records.