Georgia voters are heading to the polls Saturday as the state's runoff Senate election between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker nears in the coming weeks.
Democrats will maintain control of the Senate through 2024 due to important wins in Nevada and Arizona, guaranteeing at least a 50-50 split. Democrats hold the majority in an even Senate thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris' ability to cast tie-breaking votes.
But winning Georgia would give Democrats more breathing room and outright control of the chamber, meaning the stakes for both parties remain high.
Georgia's Senate race remains undecided due to its unique election system. If neither candidate earns more than 50% of the vote in the general election, a runoff election is held with only the top two vote-getters.
Warnock beat Walker by more than 30,000 votes, but only earned 49.4% of the vote while Walker earned 48.5%. Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver, who has not endorsed either candidate, took the remaining votes at 2.1%, forcing a runoff election.
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This year's elections are testing controversial voting reforms enacted by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and the GOP controlled state legislature. Notably, in 2020, there was a nine-week gap in between the general election and runoff. This year, the new voting reforms shortened the time window to four weeks.
That short time frame has both Democrats and Republicans scrambling to turn out as many voters as possible in a race where the margins are razor-thin.
Turnout is 'the top-line game'
Warnock's campaign has bolstered its voter outreach team with over 900 paid staffers in 18 different counties, according to a statement released by his campaign. The campaign arm of Senate Democrats, the Democratic Senatorial Congressional Committee, also poured in $7 million for field organization efforts since the Nov. 8 election.
Republicans have tapped into Kemp's political machine which includes door-knocking, phone banking and data analytics. The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC with ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is funding the program with $2 million of its own cash.
"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," Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, first told Politico.
On the ground, intense efforts from both Democratic and Republican aligned groups show that while the balance of power is no longer at stake, the race continues to attract national attention.
Turnout is "the top-line game," said Dan Kalik, senior advisor from MoveOn, a progressive grassroots organization. "It's a short time window so it's a sprint and includes the Thanksgiving break where most people are not tuned in."
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Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, announced soon after the runoff that it would be spending at least $1 million to defeat Warnock, who supports abortion access, through door-knocking, mailing and phone banking.
"Our ground team will continue to visit voters at their homes to expose Warnock's extremism and urge them to elect Walker as their champion in the U.S. Senate," said SBA president Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement.
GOP projects unity after Walker falls short in general election
Walker lagged behind his Republican colleagues on the ballot in the general election, revealing his relative weakness with independent and moderate Republican voters. Kemp sailed to reelection with more than 2.1 million votes against Democrat Stacey Abrams while Walker only earned just over 1.9 million votes.
"Part of that is probably weak partisans or independents who wanted to vote for Kemp and thought he was doing a good job," said Mary-Kate Lizotte, a political science professor at Augusta University. "A lot of Kemp voters probably didn't love Walker."
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Walker's campaign has been plagued by scandal. Walker, who has portrayed himself as a vehemently anti-abortion candidate, was accused by two different women of pressuring them into having abortions and later paying for the procedures. Walker has denied the claims.
One ad features a Republican voter who voted for Kemp and Warnock who said she "can't get past Herschel Walker's lack of character."
Republicans have been trying to project unity to Georgia voters. Last Saturday, Kemp campaigned with Walker for the first time this fall.
"We cannot rest on our laurels, everyone." Kemp said in his first rally with Walker. "We have got more wood to chop."
A brief clash over early Saturday voting
This Saturday is the first day of voting for some counties, including Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold in Georgia which includes Atlanta.
Saturday voting on Nov. 26 was initially blocked by the Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office who cited a law that prevented early voting within two days of a holiday. This Saturday followed Thanksgiving on Thursday and a generic "State Holiday" on Friday.
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Democratic organizations and Warnock's campaign sued the state to allow voting on Nov. 26, arguing the law did not apply to runoffs. The judge agreed and a higher court declined the state's request to block the ruling.
Republican organizations continued the fight and appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia to block the ruling but the court later denied the appeal Wednesday morning.
Despite the balance of power locked in, Georgia is still key
With Democrats locking up control of the Senate for the next two years, both campaigns are trying to convince voters to still turnout. Runoffs typically see lower voter turnout, and with the balance of power no longer at stake, some voters might not see much importance in coming to the polls, according to Lizotte.
"It's difficult for the Warnock campaign to communicate that it still matters, that having 51 (seats) would be better," said Lizotte. "It's hard to get Republicans to take the time and turn out given that it's not gonna make a huge difference if the Democrats are able to stick together."
A 51-49 majority would give Senate Democrats more breathing room for key votes and give them an outright majority. In 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and McConnell had to negotiate a power sharing agreement - if Warnock wins, Schumer and Democrats wouldn't have to bargain with Republicans at all.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would also see his influence in the chamber wane. Seen as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, he has been a roadblock to progressive efforts to curb fossil fuels and increase investments in social safety nets. With 51 seats, Democrats could afford to lose Manchin's vote and still pass key legislative priorities though GOP control of the House will limit what the president will be able to enact.
"We've done this before and we can do it again," said Kalik, referring to Warnock's previous victory in the 2020 runoff. "We know the formula that works and we can do this."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Early voting begins in Georgia Senate runoff where turnout is "top-line"