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Can Raphael Warnock Pull Off Another Senate Runoff?

Not all Senate runoffs are created equal. Once again, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is headed to a runoff in a Georgia Senate race, less than two years after his fight against former Sen. Kelly Loeffler in January 2021. This time, though, things may be a bit different since the balance of the Senate may not depend on Georgia in the same way it did last year.

In short, the eventual outcome of Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker’s runoff on Dec. 6 may in part hinge on whether control of the Senate hangs in balance. As of now, the Senate will include 48 Democrats and 48 Republicans, with three other as-yet-unprojected Senate races in Alaska, Arizona and Nevada. Returns give Republicans an edge as of now in both Alaska and Nevada. Arizona, meanwhile, tilts slightly toward Democrats currently. With a Democratic win in the Pennsylvania Senate race last night, that means Democrats need to hold on to two of their three competitive seats — Arizona, Nevada and/or Georgia — in order to reach 50 seats and maintain their majority in the chamber. If Georgia is the deciding seat, parties will likely throw everything they have at the Georgia runoff, even with Walker’s obvious warts as a candidate.

What to expect from Georgia’s Senate runoff | FiveThirtyEight

The reason we’re back here in the first place, though, is because Georgia law requires that candidates receive a majority of the vote to win an election. Neither Walker nor Warnock have exceeded the 50 percent threshold this cycle due to the presence of a third-party candidate on the ticket, Libertarian Chase Oliver. (Current returns show1 Warnock at 49.2 percent of the vote and Walker at 48.7 percent. Oliver has the remaining 2.1 percent.)

Historically, runoffs elections in the Peach State have favored Republicans. Prior to this upcoming race, Georgia has seen 11 runoffs between a Democrat and a Republican for statewide office since the late 1960s, and the runoff margin was better for Republicans than the general election margin in seven of them. This is largely attributable to the drop-off in turnout — fewer people vote in runoff races than in general elections — and the decline usually disproportionately affects Democrats. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s Deluxe forecast, which was frozen early Tuesday morning, estimated that, in a runoff, Walker would win about 69 percent of the time. 

Before 2020, the GOP usually gained ground in Georgia runoffs

Shift in vote margin and percentage change in turnout from the general election to the runoff for statewide races in Georgia, 1992-2020

Year Office General Margin Runoff Margin Diff.
2020 U.S. Senate R+1.8 D+1.2 D+3.0
2020 U.S. Senate* R+1.0 D+2.1 D+3.1
2020 Public Service Commission R+2.9 R+0.8 D+2.2
2018 Secretary of State R+0.4 R+3.8 R+3.4
2018 Public Service Commission R+2.1 R+3.5 R+1.4
2008 U.S. Senate R+2.9 R+14.9 R+12.0
2008 Public Service Commission D+0.6 R+13.0 R+13.7
2006 Public Service Commission D+2.6 R+4.4 R+7.0
1998 Public Service Commission* D+15.8 D+31.4 D+15.6
1992 U.S. Senate D+1.6 R+1.3 R+2.9
1992 Public Service Commission R+0.7 R+13.6 R+12.9

*Special election

Georgia rules require a candidate to win a majority of the vote in general elections or special elections; if no candidate wins a majority, there is a runoff between the top-two finishers. If a special election took place on a regular general election date, it is included in this table. In these cases, there may be multiple candidates from each party running, so the Democratic and Republican totals are the combined vote share of all candidates from that party.

Sources: Georgia Secretary of State

But in the 2021 runoffs, Democrats upended their tendency to lose ground in runoffs by gaining on their November performance and capturing two seats. Whether this was a one-off or a start of something new is impossible to know, but as I mentioned earlier, the degree to which the parties — and voters — go all-in on this runoff may hinge on whether control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

When it did, in 2021, both Warnock and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff both narrowly defeated their Republican rivals, former Sens. Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in their runoff races. But things were slightly different for Democrats that year. Not only were Democrats indefatigable in encouraging their voters to turn out, but the GOP’s standard bearer, then-President Donald Trump, dissuaded Republicans from trusting the state’s electoral system — which dampened GOP turnout in the state. 

Given the different circumstances, Walker could stand to benefit if the race ends up coming down to Senate control, as Republican voters in the state might be more likely to overlook the GOP candidate’s many scandals. On the flip side, if Senate control isn’t on the line, Warnock might have a leg up since his supporters are more enthusiastic about supporting him than Walker’s are about his, according to an October Fox News poll. In addition, GOP-allied groups could stay on the sidelines or offer only muted support, especially given Walker’s various controversies. And with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp safely reelected, Walker will not have the added benefit of riding the incumbent governor’s coattails in the runoff.

What could also benefit Warnock — if control of the Senate is on the line — is that he almost certainly won more votes than Walker on the first ballot, so if he can turn out his supporters at a high rate, he might be able to edge Walker in the runoff (with the caveat that we don’t know how Oliver’s supporters might break, or how many will show up to the polls during a runoff.) Warnock could also benefit from the same influx of new Black voters in the state that helped him in 2021 — assuming they show up to the polls this year, too. And, for what it’s worth, they very well could: Exit polling data (which is subject to change as we find out more) shows that roughly 28 percent of the voting electorate in Georgia was Black, roughly the same share as in 2020, which suggests Black turnout didn’t notably tick down despite the midterm environment.

That said, this contest was always likely going to be competitive given that the electorate of Georgia has changed significantly over the past two decades or so. So — once more — the Peach State will be the center of the political universe; expect both parties to spend gobs of money (again) and dispatch a number of political heavyweights to get out the vote, too. 

Oh, and if you live in Georgia, don’t get too comfortable awaiting election returns in other states: Advanced in-person voting for the runoff will start soon


  1. As of Nov. 9, 2 p.m. EST.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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