fb-pixel Skip to main content

In a shortened Georgia Senate sprint, candidates court split-ticket voters

The campaigns of both Senator Raphael Warnock (Left) and GOP candidate Herschel Walker are hoping to attract voters who split the ticket on Election Day.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Herschel Walker, the former college football star with a complicated past, would not be Georgia’s Republican Senate candidate if it weren’t for former president Donald Trump. But for the runoff against incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock in December, Walker is relying on Trump’s nemesis, Governor Brian Kemp, to get him across the finish line.

Kemp clashed with Trump in the aftermath of Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss but, despite an onslaught of attacks from the former president, coasted to reelection on Nov. 8 thanks, in part, to a vast turnout operation. Now, in the sprint to the runoff, Kemp is putting his machine to work on behalf of Walker, as well as campaigning with the Senate hopeful for the first time.

Advertisement



The first stop: Cobb County, where Kemp lost by about 4.5 percentage points and Walker by roughly 16.

There, in a swath of the Atlanta suburbs, lies a diversifying county where voters once enthusiastically backed Republicans such as Mitt Romney, but gained a distaste for Trump. And it’s the kind of place where a significant slice of voters seemed to have split their tickets, likely backing both Kemp and Warnock, the Democrat.

Overall, some 203,130 voters in Georgia cast ballots for Kemp but not Walker, a candidate they rejected after accusations of domestic violence, absentee parenting, and hypocrisy on the issue of abortion as well as his own strange or false statements repeatedly besieged Walker’s campaign. Ultimately, Walker received 48.49 percent of the vote , well short of Kemp’s 53.4 percent in the general election. And to win the runoff, he needs the support of as many of those ticket-splitters he can find.

Those same voters, of course, are also top of mind for Warnock, who has made a point to campaign in person to keep split-ticket voters who backed him and Kemp from defecting to Walker. He has even featured one such voter in a new campaign ad.

Advertisement



“Warnock should absolutely be going after these types of voters,” said Gunner Ramer, political director for Republican Accountability Project, which sought to slow the march of Trump-endorsed candidates in the midterms. “They are still the decisive bloc of voters in these swing seats. They rejected Donald Trump in 2020 and they rejected Trump-like candidates in 2022.”

Warnock drew about 40,000 more votes than Walker, but with the presence of a libertarian candidate in the race, neither candidate won more than half of the votes — which, in Georgia, triggers a runoff. Neither the Kemp campaign, the Walker campaign nor the Warnock campaign offered comment.

As the campaigns sprint to the Dec. 6 runoff election, the split-ticket voters are emerging as a rare pool of individuals who could actually be up for grabs, in a race where no further voter registration is permitted. This is the result of a law passed by the GOP last year, and signed by Kemp, that shortened the period between general elections and runoffs to four weeks but left in place the requirement for new voters to register at least 30 days before an election. In 2022, this meant the last day to register for a potential special election was Nov. 7 — the day before the general election. The change enraged Democrats and voting rights activists who accused Republicans of doing it solely for political purposes.

Advertisement



“They do not want to expand the electorate,” said Kendra Cotton, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams that has worked to register and mobilize new voters. “They know Georgia is browning and getting younger at a precipitous pace. Why would you want to bring on more voters who are going to move us to a progressive future?”

When Warnock won his seat in early 2021, the nine-week runoff period left time for new voters to be added to the electorate — and organizations such as Cotton’s focused on bringing transplants, people who had just turned 18, and other new voters into the fold. Overall, 76,000 more voters were eligible to vote in the Jan. 5 runoff than in the Nov. 3 general election, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Warnock ultimately won by 93,550 votes, and his race — along with another Georgia Senate race on the same day — secured narrow control of the Senate for Democrats.

Now, “you can’t have nearly as big an effort to go out and prospect and find individuals, I think that probably does work against Democrats,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Instead, both parties are trying to turn out their base while persuading the ticket-splitters, too. The 81,365 voters — about 2 percent of the total — who backed third-party candidate Libertarian Chase Oliver are also up for grabs.

Advertisement



Democrats have already secured the 50 seats they need to control the Senate, which has lowered the stakes for this runoff from the bonanza that unfolded in 2020 and 2021. Still, national operatives on both sides are pouring money into the contest.

“Yes, we’re doing this again,” Warnock said in one recent ad, winking at the sense of deja vu that unites Georgia voters after two years of nearly constant elections.

The same day Walker stood with Kemp last week, Warnock campaigned with Republicans who had split their tickets between him and Kemp, expressing confidence they would stick with him.

“Georgia traditionally has not been a split-ticket state,” he told FOX 5 Atlanta, a local TV station, “yet they showed up for me in remarkable ways.”

During the general election, Kemp had kept Walker and his scandal-plagued campaign at an arm’s length. Now, anyone rooting for Walker is hoping for as much Kemp — and as little Trump — as possible.

“There’s nobody that’s got more political capital here than Kemp, so that’s something that’s a big positive in Herschel’s favor,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican operative in Georgia who worked for former governor Nathan Deal.

It all amounts to an unpredictable dynamic, and competing theories abound for who the ticket-splitters will help the most in the runoff, and how. Robinson said Walker’s main hope lies not in persuading November’s ticket-splitters to change their minds, but in the possibility that they won’t return to the polls without Kemp on the ballot.

Advertisement



“Herschel Walker can’t have a strategy of converting Warnock voters. That doesn’t work,” Robinson said. “His best bet is for people who voted for Kemp and Warnock to not come back.”

Ramer, the Republican operative who is opposed to Trump-aligned candidates, said that since the runoff is not going to determine control of the Senate, moderate Republicans who are uncomfortable with Walker might feel like they can back Warnock, if they turn out at all.

Kemp’s vaunted get-out-the-vote operation, which is called Georgians First, is now working on behalf of Walker in tandem with the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAAC affiliated with Senator Mitch McConnell. Kemp’s machine may help counteract the Democratic turnout effort built by Abrams. Abrams, who lost her match to Kemp on Election Day, is credited with building the still-powerful network that helped Warnock, Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff, and President Biden all win the state in 2020 and 2021.

And progressive groups insist they aren’t letting up, even though they can’t register new voters and have less time to build turnout than before the 2021 runoff. Democrats went to court to expand early voting, trying to squeeze out every day of voting possible in a shortened election timeline. On Tuesday, an appeals court let stand a ruling allowing early voting this Saturday; the Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, earlier said that allowing voting that day would conflict with another state law barring such voting immediately after state holidays.

Alejandro Chavez, deputy director of GALEO Impact Fund, which mobilized Latino voters to support Warnock, said his organization’s bilingual canvassers were knocking on doors three days after the general election.

“The numbers are there for us if we can mobilize all of the different communities,” Chavez said.

And in a race where the margins are likely to be thin, some Democrats are warning the Warnock campaign not to focus on ticket-splitters at the expense of Democrat base voters.

“The margins will, I expect, be small and tight. Senator Warnock needs to continue engaging deeply and meaningfully with Black voters and voters of color,” said Abigail Collazo, a Democratic strategist and a former adviser to the New Georgia Project. “It’s just as important as ensuring the Kemp-Warnock voters stay with them.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.