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PAVLICK: In The Senate, It All Comes Down To Georgia — Again

[Screenshot/YouTube/Fox 5 Atlanta]

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Steve Pavlick Partner & Head of Policy at Renaissance Macro and a former Treasury official.
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The Senate is currently divided 50- 50, with the tie breaking vote going to the vice president. This gives Democrats control of the Senate, allowing them to set hearing schedules and confirm nominees with a bare majority. Democrats hope they can pick up a Republican-held Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Republicans feel good about flipping a Democrat-held Senate seat in Nevada. If these are the only two Senate seats to change hands, then there is a possibility that the Georgia Senate contest winner could once again determine control of the Senate. If this sounds familiar, it should because the same thing happened in the 2020 election.

Recall that Georgia had two Senate contests in 2020 after incumbent Republican Senator Johnny Isakson retired, which created the rare opportunity for a state to have two Senate contests in the same year. At that time, Republicans appeared divided and less enthusiastic to turn out after the presidential election had been called for Joe Biden. Donald Trump was arguably more of a liability than an asset for Republican Senate candidates during the Georgia Senate runoff races, where he criticized the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state plus encouraged his voters to stay home because of election integrity concerns. Democrats prevailed in both Senate contests on January 5th, 2021, which also handed them control of the Senate, and, as a result, unified control of the government. 

Georgia could once again become the center of the U.S. political universe as it is the only state where general elections are subject to an absolute majority threshold. To win outright in November, candidates must capture “50 percent plus one” votes. If no candidate does so, the top two vote-getters proceed to a December 6th, 2022, runoff. 

In 2022 there are three Georgia Senate candidates: Democrat incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, Republican challenger Herschel Walker, and Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, as of this writing, Warnock has a slight one-point lead over Walker, which is within the margin of error. A recent October Trafalgar poll shows support for Chase Oliver at 3.7%, also within the margin of error. Despite the outsized spending by Republicans and Democrats, neither candidate has been able to cross 50%. This suggests that the Senate contest could go to a December 6th runoff.

As of this writing, incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp is ahead of his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by an eight-point margin, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. This is outside the margin of error. Republicans hope that if Kemp were to win by a more significant margin of closer to 8%, it might be enough to carry Walker, a former football star, across the metaphorical goal line due to a decline in split-ticket voting where voters select candidates from different political parties. 

So far, incumbent Kemp has kept his distance from Herschel Walker. If Kemp goes on to win re-election, he may feel more political pressure to campaign for Walker to boost his chances in a Senate runoff. However, if control of the Senate is at stake, one can expect that Democrats and Republicans will spare no expense trying to energize their supporters to turn out again. As of this writing, reported the Georgia Senate race is the only other race to break $100M in total outside spending so far this election cycle.

There remains the question of where Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver’s support goes in a runoff race. Republicans argue Oliver’s supporters would be more likely to vote for Walker given that Libertarians are more aligned ideologically with Republicans who also prefer a smaller role for government than Democrats. Democrats hope Libertarians will side with Warnock since they presumably voted against Walker the first time. More than likely most of Oliver’s voters will stay home. 

According to Inside Elections, between 1988 and 2020, there were seven runoffs statewide general or special election runoffs in Georgia, and Democrats won just one of them. That changed in 2020 when Democrats won both Senate seats. 

Democrats outperformed in 2020, where demographics have trended in their favor, with a larger percentage of black and younger voters in the Atlanta suburbs. Whether this represents a permanent change or was just a one-off occurrence remains to be seen. There is also the question of Trump’s effect on the 2020 election where he motivated Democrats and discouraged Republicans. Some also wonder if some Republican voters stayed home during the Senate runoff in 2021 because they assumed they would win given the long history of winning. There could also be added motivation on both sides again if the runoff once again determines control of the Senate.

Steve Pavlick is a Partner & Head of Policy at Renaissance Macro and a former Treasury official.

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