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Image: John Bazemore/AP Photo/picture alliance

Georgia election runoff another test for US Democrats

Sumi Somaskanda Washington DC
December 5, 2022

The US midterm elections aren’t over just yet. They will culminate in a runoff in Georgia on Tuesday between incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock and his Republican rival Herschel Walker.

https://p.dw.com/p/4KV33

Once again, a political frenzy has descended upon Georgia. On Tuesday, the US state will hold a runoff election for a Senate seat, pitting incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock against his Republican challenger Herschel Walker. 

Neither candidate received the 50% required to win outright on November 8

But runoffs nor the frenzy are new for Georgia. In 2020, two key Senate races ended in dramatic runoffs. Democrats secured both seats and clinched the narrowest of majorities in the Senate, with only Democrats Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker. 

This time around, the Democrats have already secured that majority, and they are going for another seat to further tip the balance in their favor — 51 Democrats to 49 Republicans. Even though control of the Senate does not hang in the balance, officials on both sides of the aisle are campaigning aggressively to secure the Senate seat in Georgia.

For the Democrats in particular, this race carries significant consequences in shaping the immediate and long-term political landscape.

Law enforcement officers stand nearby a truck with a sign encouraging voting ahead of a
Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes in the November 8, 2022, midterms, but fell short of the majority required under Georgia law, triggering a four-week runoff blitzImage: CHENEY ORR/REUTERS

What's at stake

With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, President Joe Biden is facing a divided Congress and significant hurdles in pursuing his policies. But the Senate alone and not the House confirms judges, and a clear Democratic majority assures the president he can secure a green light for his judicial and executive branch nominees. 

In the current 50-50 Senate, the two parties share an equal number of seats on committees, which plays a significant role in evaluating and shaping legislation as well as recommending action. But one more seat for the Democrats would mean a committee majority.

Additionally, President Biden has faced significant headwinds from two conservative Democratic Senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — in trying to push through his legislative agenda. Picking up another Democratic seat in the Senate would dilute the power Manchin and Sinema have to thwart Biden. 

In the medium-term, the Georgia runoff looms even larger. Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst and reporter at Election Insights, told DW that the Democrats are in for a bitter battle in the 2024 election, with Democratic senators set to face stiff Republican challenges in a number of battleground states. Picking up an extra seat in Georgia now will allow Democrats to breathe a bit easier in 2024.

Former US President Donald Trump stands at a podium pointing his right forefinger at the unseen crowd
Former US President Donald Trump has already announced his 2024 White House bidImage: Octavio Jones/REUTERS

And in the longer-term, Rubashkin added, a Democratic win in this runoff election would notch an important symbolic victory. The party has invested significant time and resources in reestablishing a foothold in Georgia, but Republicans won every other statewide race in the 2022 midterm elections. 

"It would give them something to continue to build on and look forward to," said Rubashkin. "If they really do get wiped out in Georgia this cycle, that would be very demoralizing."

Shifting Colors

Reestablishing a foothold has not come easy. For decades, Georgia has served as a reliably Republican bulwark in the heart of the deep red (Republican) South. But as metropolitan areas like Atlanta have grown steadily, attracting a diverse group of immigrants from around the world and transplants from Democratic states, a growing number of districts have turned blue (Democrat). Yet beyond its metropolitan areas, Georgia remains staunchly Republican. 

President Biden only narrowly won the state in 2020, becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since 1992. 

US President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington
Ahead of the midterms, Biden avoided wading into key Senate races in states such as Georgia, where his approval ratings have trailed below his numbers nationallyImage: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

"I think that Georgia is becoming increasingly competitive," Andra Gillespie, author and associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, told DW. "Whether that version of competitiveness is light or deep purple, I think we're still going to need a few more election cycles to sort it out."

The Black vote

Perhaps equally as remarkable as Georgia's morphing political landscape is a southern Senate race featuring two Black men. Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator to represent Georgia when he won his seat last year.

Warnock, a reverend at Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has made his views on racism a pillar of his campaign for reelection, vowing to tackle systemic racism and restrictive voting laws that disproportionately target Black voters. That puts him squarely at odds with his opponent. 

Raphael Warnock is the first Black senator from the US state of Georgia
Raphael Warnock is the first Black senator from the US state of GeorgiaImage: Sue Dorfman/Zuma/dpa/picture alliance

If American football is a religion, Herschel Walker is Georgia's idol. The former University of Georgia and National Football League (NFL) star has been able to parlay his celebrity status into a Senate bid. Walker has disputed that systemic racism exists, accusing Democrats of divisive rhetoric on race and inequality. 

That stance rings hollow with most Black voters, said Gillespie. 

"[Republicans] have mistakenly assumed that Walker might be able to win some African American votes, which is a perennial mistake that Republicans have made," she said. "Republicans don't win Black votes unless they campaign for Black votes. Herschel Walker hasn't done that."

A Black women celebrates as media announce that Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden has won the 2020 US presidential election in Atlanta, Georgia
Warnock has concentrated his final campaign efforts for the runoff election on Black communities in metro AtlantaImage: Brandon Bell/REUTERS

Walker's woes

Walker has focused on winning over a broad coalition of conservative voters, buoyed early on by an endorsement from former President Donald Trump that earned him the support of the far-right wing of the party. Yet Trump's hand-picked candidates did not fare particularly well in the midterm elections, and the former president has been notably absent from Walker's rallies ahead of this runoff. 

Still, Walker can't seem to get out of his own way. He has been mired in scandals and caught in lies. The most high-profile scandal involved allegations from two women that Walker had urged them to get an abortion after becoming pregnant with his child, even paying for one woman's abortion. That stands in direct contrast with the ardent anti-abortion stance he has professed on the campaign trail. Walker has denied the allegations.

Walker has also delivered meandering, at times bizarre speeches during his campaign. At a rally last Wednesday, he pontificated on the values of vampires and werewolves for several minutes, drawing the derision of former President Barack Obama at a rally for the Democrats a few days later. 

Herschel Walker speaks to supporters at a campaign rally on November 16, 2022, in McDonough, Georgia
Will Herschel Walker's celebrity football status snag him a Senate seat for the Republican Party?Image: Brandon Bell/AFP/Getty Images

Still, Walker has the backing of a number of Republican heavyweights who have joined him on the campaign trail, trying to drum up support. And Senator Warnock will need a strong turnout from Georgia's Black voters, who make up a third of the state's electorate. But the November 8th vote saw the lowest Black turnout across the country in years, according to a New York Times analysis.  

The race is set to come down to the wire. And the result of Tuesday's runoff will help paint a clearer picture of how to win in Georgia — and perhaps win the presidency — in 2024.

Edited by: Jessie Wingard

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