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Republicans, Democrats say Ga. runoff could still be key, even without a Senate majority on the line

(WASHINGTON) — Control of the Senate will no longer hinge on Georgia.

Nevada incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto defeated Republican Adam Laxalt, giving Democrats at least 50 seats and control of the upper chamber.

Now, the results of Georgia’s runoff election between incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will determine whether Democrats have a one-seat cushion in the Senate — which would ease Democrats’ control of committees and processes like confirming judges that currently require extra steps to overcome the 50-50 split — or if it’ll be another term of relying on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Both sides of the aisle agree that Georgia’s Senate runoff still remains important even if the majority no longer hangs in the balance.

“Congratulations to my colleagues, but our message is the same,” Warnock said at campaign stop on Sunday.

“This election is about who’s ready and who’s fit to serve the people of Georgia in the United States Senate. It’s a race about competence and about character and on both of those scores, there’s a world of difference between me and Herschel Walker,” he said. “And so I look forward to prosecuting that case over the next few weeks.”

At a campaign stop in Peachtree City on Sunday, Walker made no mention of the balance of the Senate, focusing squarely on his battle against Warnock and his personal choice to launch a campaign.

“The Lord prepared me to get in his way right now because as I started looking, I said that I’m not — I wasn’t supposed to be running on no politics. You think that I wanted to be a senator? Guys, I was doing OK,” he said. “I was doing alright but I said ‘no, no, no, no, you’re not gonna hurt my family.’ And all of you are my family I don’t care what color your skin is.”

Democrats celebrated their victories over the weekend even though many quickly shifted back to emphasizing Georgia’s runoff, highlighting the party’s legislative struggles this term with a split chamber.

Should Warnock win reelection, it would offer Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flexibility in the moments that he loses the votes of either Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., or Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., two centrists who have at times disrupted Democrats’ agenda in the upper chamber. And with a full-fledged majority, rather than a 50-50 split, Democrats would be able to move beyond equally balanced committees and take control of major panels, smoothing the party’s path to passing legislation and acting on President Joe Biden’s nominees.

“We will still have a Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin problem. And if Democrats want to continue on our winning streak, we must deliver for Americans — all Americans. We need Sen. Warnock in the senate,” said Hillary Holley, executive director of Care in Action, a nonpartisan group advocating for domestic workers.

Republicans, meanwhile, are working to highlight how a divided Congress has at times worked to their advantage. Walker would only boost that advantage, they said.

“There are senators who have, in certain instances, voted with the GOP on key pieces of legislation. With a victory for Herschel Walker, it takes away that extra vote cushion from the Democrats and makes consensus building and compromise more likely,” Republican strategist Julianne Thompson said.

Warnock, Walker’s runoff campaigns take shape

Operatives are also cautioning voters not be complacent, reminding them of what happened last time Georgia’s Senate race went into a runoff, in 2021 — after the GOP candidates won in the first round — and Republican voters were apathetic, leading to two flips.

“While the majority of the Senate is no longer in question, Georgia Republicans are still salty from losing the two U.S. Senate seats in 2021 and want to regain the seat,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Heading into another runoff, Warnock’s campaign manager Quentin Fulks said the senator will continue to grow his coalition of support, touting Warnock’s performance in urban and suburban counties where he performed better than Biden did in 2020.

“Reverend Warnock will win the runoff by continuing the strategic investments in paid communication and field organizing, continuing to hold the diverse coalition that has driven Reverend Warnock’s success, and emphasizing that this race is about who is able to represent our state,” Fulks said.

Warnock, on the campaign trail, has distanced himself from the national party, trying to emphasize bipartisanship instead. He often dodges questions about a possible Biden 2024 run, talks about working with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in his stump speeches and only appeared with a couple of surrogates on the campaign trail, mainly his Georgia counterpart Sen. Jon Ossoff.

On the other hand, Walker has garnered support from multiple leading Republican senators who have sought to make the case for a Republican majority, arguing that the road led through Georgia.

Though now unable to frame the election as a fight to retake control of the Senate, Walker will now have to focus on why he is the better person to represent Georgia as his personal history remains at center stage.

“He definitely needs to focus on exactly what he’s going to do if he gets elected. Instead of knocking the opponent, bringing any kind of campaign like that, focus on exactly what his plan is, what his policies would be so people can know what he would do,” Melissa, a Georgia voter who supports Walker, told ABC News when asked how he could appeal to apprehensive Georgians.

Walker will also need to improve his performance in rural and urban communities. In last week’s midterms, he underperformed compared to the rest of the Republican statewide ticket, drawing 200,000 fewer votes than Gov. Brian Kemp, according to the secretary of state’s election results.

Kemp, who won reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams, is lending his support to Walker’s runoff bid. Kemp’s ground data and analytics operation — including paid door knocking, phones, modeling, absentee ballot program, and tracking — will partner with the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), which will fund the operation at a level of “over two million dollars,” SLF spox Jack Pandol told ABC News.

Though runoffs have become a well-known scenario for Georgia, candidates and voters will have to navigate new rules, questions around voter apathy and a political environment that could already be looking ahead to 2024.

New voting rules add a wrinkle

Both candidates kicked off their runoff campaigns on Thursday, hoping to sustain an energized base.

Standing in front of the John Lewis Mural, Warnock continued to frame his battle against Walker as one centered more around morality rather than policy.

“This is not a race about Democrat and Republican. It’s not a race of right versus the left. Fundamentally, this is a race about right and wrong. Who’s right for Georgia and who’s clearly wrong for Georgia,” he said.

“And when it comes to that, the choice could not be more clear between me and Herschel Walker. Some things in life are complicated. This ain’t one of them,” he said.

Walker started his runoff campaign before a crowd of thousands in Canton, where he was joined by Texas Sen. Cruz. He invoked his famed college and professional football career.

“We’re in overtime, that means we got a runoff. Hey, I was built for this,” he said to cheers. “He hung around and got into this runoff and he’s thinking he’s gonna win. We need to prove him wrong.”

Both candidates will have to make the case to their base to turnout despite Senate control being decided, battling the Thanksgiving holiday in the middle of the runoff cycle. Warnock will also have to split his time between campaigning on the trail in Georgia and fulfilling his duties in Washington.

New voters won’t be able to vote in the runoff; they must have registered by Nov. 7.

In 2020, thousands of voters were able to register for the runoff after the general election, leading to a surge in voters who didn’t vote in November but turned out for Democrats the following January. (State Republicans subsequently changed the rules for runoff elections, including by shortening the window when one is scheduled after a general election.)

Walker already stumbled on the voting rules while speaking with voters Sunday.

“I want you to go out and — because you can only vote if you voted in the last time, that’s what they told me. So I want you, if you voted last time, go vote for me again,” Walker said.

The shorter early voting period became even shorter due to the holidays as voters also won’t be able to cast their ballots on the last Saturday of the month. Georgia state law bars early voting within two days of a holiday, and Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday this year.

Warnock and Democratic party officials have now sued to try and require that Saturday of early voting, arguing that the rule about the holiday cutoff doesn’t apply to runoffs.

Counties may choose to have early voting the Sunday after Thanksgiving and potentially the Tuesday and Wednesday before if preparations are completed by then.

In 2020, when Democrats secured two major victories in the state and flipped control of the U.S. Senate, candidates were forced into a nine-week runoff cycle; however, under Georgia’s new voting law, this election will be held four weeks after Election Day on Dec. 6.

“Well there’s no question that they looked at our victory the last time in the runoff, and sought to make it harder. But the people of Georgia pushed through those barriers during the general election. I’m calling on them to do the same thing again,” Warnock told reporters Sunday.

Former President Donald Trump also looms large over the runoff after some Republicans notably blamed his vociferous claims of election fraud in 2020 for a depressed GOP base that cost the GOP two Georgia Senate seats in 2021 runoffs.

Now, Trump is expected to launch a third presidential campaign Tuesday evening, more deeply inserting himself into the national conversation shortly before Georgia voters head to the polls for a second time and sparking handwringing even among allies and voters.

“You know, I’d rather see DeSantis at this point. I love Trump. I appreciate him. But I’ve got some mixed feelings about him coming in. I definitely would prefer that he wait to announce until this until this election is over,” Steve Bolen, a Walker supporter, told ABC News. “I think that would take away attention. We got to put all of our focus on getting Herschel elected.”

Given comments like that, Republican allies and critics alike are suggesting a presidential campaign launch could impede efforts to defeat Warnock.

“Of course, President Trump had said he’d be making an announcement on Nov. 15, next Tuesday. I’m advising the president to hold off until after the Georgia race,” Jason Miller, a former adviser on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said on Newsmax. “Priorities A, B and C need to be about Herschel [Walker] right now.”

“[I]f Pres. Trump announces his run next week, Sen. Warnock raises twice as much money for the Georgia runoff,” tweeted Michael Caputo, a former Trump administration official.

Still, runoffs are historically unpredictable, and Democrats say with such a narrow window to organize before Dec. 6, anything can happen.

Democrats who worked on the 2021 runoffs said the fact that Senate control is already decided could depress turnout on both sides, possibly exacerbating an already anticipated dropoff in turnout.

“If we’re in a world where we already have control of the Senate and this is just icing on the cake, I think that you have to question, is that going to be enough of a motivating factor to get Democrats back out to vote on Dec. 6? I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion to assume that they would,” one senior adviser on Warnock’s 2020 campaign said in an interview before Nevada’s Senate race was called, adding that losing the Senate could be an “energizer” for Republicans.

“I’d say this one is even more unpredictable than the last one,” said a second Democrat who worked on the 2021 runoffs. “A shorter [early vote] period is a challenge for Dems especially. Warnock will need a massive turnout and education game to make sure people vote that week.”

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