10 min read

Warnock vs. Walker

Georgia voters head to the polls for the long-awaited Senate runoff, the final contest of the 2022 cycle has arrived.
Warnock vs. Walker

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, December 6, 2022. The 2024 elections are exactly 700 days away.

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🗳 Georgia runoff: Warnock, Walker face off in final contest of 2022

After months of campaigning and more than $380 million in spending, Georgia will close off the 2022 midterm cycle today with its third high-stakes Senate runoff in two years.

It’s seen as Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s race to lose. Nearly 1.9 million Georgians have already cast ballots in the runoff, including more than 77,000 who did not vote in the November election, repeatedly shattering daily voting records in the state.

Those early voters hail disproportionately from Democratic areas — which certainly does not guarantee a Warnock victory, but it means that Republican nominee Herschel Walker is in need of overwhelming Election Day turnout from his base in order to overcome the advantage Democrats have likely banked.

And don’t forget this adage: “A vote that has already been cast is infinitely more valuable than a vote that is being promised,” as Peach State Politics proprietor Niles Francis reminded me in a text last night.

The elections modelers at Split Ticket estimate that Warnock has already built up an early vote lead of around 15 percentage points, a daunting deficit for Walker to surmount in a single day.

In the first iteration of the Warnock/Walker contest in November, the Democratic minister-turned-senator took 49.4% of the vote while the Republican football star-turned-candidate took 48.5%. A Libertarian candidate, who will not be on the ballot today, received another 2%. (Under a Georgia law with Jim Crow roots, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in November, a runoff must be held between the two top-performing candidates to decide the winner.)

Per FiveThirtyEight, Warnock has a slight, 2-point lead in the polling average for today’s contest. While the race was seen as a pure tossup heading into November, Inside Elections has now rated it as “Tilt Democratic” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball has moved it to “Lean Democratic,” a vote of confidence for Warnock from two top election prognosticators.

If Warnock does pull off another victory, it will be the latest proof of a fast-paced political realignment in Georgia. In the pre-Trump era, Georgia was regarded as comfortably Republican territory; in the nine presidential elections between 1984 and 2016, Democrats won the state only once.

But then came 2020, when a shift in the highly-educated, Trump-averse Atlanta suburbs fueled Joe Biden’s narrow win in the Peach State, and 2021, when both Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won a pair of Senate runoffs to decide control of the chamber. (Warnock is on the ballot again because his original victory was in a special election to finish the last two years of an unfinished term.) As Politico notes, that makes Georgia “the only Deep South state to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate this century.”

Those same suburban precincts — which largely split their tickets between Democrat Warnock and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in November — will once again be central to today’s runoff.

The 2022 Senate and gubernatorial races in Georgia, compared to the 2020 presidential results. (New York Times)

The results will also reflect the unique dynamics of this race, which has pit two known quantities in the state against each other: the heir to Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Atlanta pulpit and the best running back in University of Georgia history. It is the first time that two Black major party nominees have run competed for a Senate seat in Georgia, although both candidates have starkly different relationships with the state’s Black community.

Walker’s campaign has also been dogged by a series of gaffes — most recently, a rambling discourse on werewolves and vampires — and scandals, including questions about his residency and allegations from two women that the pro-life candidate paid for them to have abortions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Warnock and Walker deployed divergent strategies in the race’s final days, with the former holding several major rallies and the latter worrying his allies by keeping a lower-key campaign schedule.

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump descended on the state during the runoff campaigning, as both Warnock and Walker have endeavored to distance themselves from their parties’ putative leaders. The only participation from either figure has come remotely: Biden recorded an interview with an Atlanta radio host on Monday, while Trump hosted a tele-rally for Walker hours later.

A recent CNN poll found that both Trump and Biden are viewed more unfavorably than favorably in Georgia. (Trump played a key role early in the race, however: he recruited Walker to run, drawing on ties dating back to Walker’s days as a star player on the short-lived, Trump-owned football team, the New Jersey Generals.)

Even without Trump or Biden, the contest has featured no shortage of high-profile surrogates and attention, with former President Barack Obama arriving last week to boost Warnock and a rotating cast of Republican senators accompanying Walker on the stump. Walker’s odds have also been lifted by aid from Kemp, the state’s popular GOP governor, who loaned his get-out-the-vote machine to the Senate candidate for the runoff.

The high-profile nature of the race is partly due to the considerable influence its results will wield over the next two years in Washington. Although the runoff will not decide control of the Senate — which Democrats have already notched — it will dictate whether the chamber will once again be split 50-50, or whether Democrats will assume the outright majority they have long desired, complete with full control of committees and just a little extra breathing room.  

Polls start closing in Georgia at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, so expect returns to begin flooding in shortly after. Check back in tomorrow’s newsletter for an update on the results.

Warnock and Walker during their sole debate. (Fox 5 Atlanta)

🐘 Checking in on the rings of GOP infighting

Last month, I wrote about the four rings of Republican infighting going on at the time: over the 2024 presidential nomination and leadership in the House, Senate, and Republican National Committee.

One of those rings has been resolved: Mitch McConnell was handily re-elected as Senate Republican leader. The other three remain live questions. Let’s check in with where they stand:

The 2024 shadow campaign

A slew of Senate Republicans piled criticism on Donald Trump on Monday, bashing the ex-president for kicking off his 2024 campaign by dining with anti-semites and calling for the Constitution to be terminated.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) called him a “clown [who] is trying to sell tickets to his circus.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) predicted that he would end up prematurely dropping his 2024 bid. And so on.

Meanwhile, per CNN, Trump’s allies are worried by the slow start to his campaigning, noting that he has yet to leave his home state in the three weeks since announcing. Trump’s early launch was meant to scare off potential rivals — but it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Instead, a growing number of Republicans appear to be considering runs against him, including his former national security adviser, John Bolton. The hawkish former official told NBC News on Monday that he is mulling a bid of his own in the wake of Trump’s anti-constitutional comments.

McCarthy’s hunt for 218

With less than a month to go until the speakership election, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is still hunting for the 218 votes he needs to assure victory. With Republicans expected to control 222 seats in the next Congress, McCarthy can only afford four defections — but five members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus have publicly announced their opposition.

McCarthy will now spend the next few weeks trying to come up with concessions to flip the defectors; it’s possible that this will be the first speakership election since 1923 to require multiple ballots.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of possible McCarthy alternatives being whispered about: his No. 2, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA); former Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK); outgoing Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY); retiring Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI); former House speaker Newt Gingrich; even Donald Trump. It is true that one does not have to be a sitting House member to be speaker — but all of these names (save Scalise) are very unlikely to end up with gavel.

Ronna’s rivals

After the disappointing midterm cycle, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is facing new opposition in her quest for a fourth term atop the party.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a leading 2020 election denier, announced a campaign last week, while California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon threw her hat in the ring on Monday. Although she is unlikely to pick up much support, Dhillon’s entrance into the race is notable since McDaniel just appointed her last week to a panel reviewing the results of the 2022 elections.

McDaniel’s most potent threat would come from a name mentioned above: Lee Zeldin, who is all the rage in the GOP after overperforming in this year’s gubernatorial race in deep-blue New York. Zeldin says he will reveal his RNC decision at 8 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow morning.

Lee Zeldin, the new “it man” in the GOP. (Gage Skidmore) 

🚨 What else you should know

LAME DUCK: Lawmakers still have a long to-do list of unfinished item for the lame-duck session, including the government funding omnibus package (deadline: December 16) and the annual defense policy bill.

  • Omnibus: The two parties have yet to agree on the first step — how much overall spending to approve for next year — preventing them from making much progress beyond that. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), met Monday to try to hammer out a deal.
  • Defense bill: The package is being held up by disputes over a laundry list of unrelated add-ons being sought by Democrats: an update to the Electoral Count Act, permitting reform, a marijuana banking bill, a controversial media competition bill. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking an end to the military vaccine mandate — which they appear likely to receive.

And even more issues are emerging that lawmakers want to deal with before the new Congress convenes in January. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) reportedly came to agreement Monday on a surprise immigration deal, which would provide a path to citizenship for 2 million “Dreamers” in exchange for a $25 billion increase in border security funding. But there is precious little time for the deal to be finalized and win support from the 10 Republicans it would need to advance.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is zeroing in on an immigration deal. (Gage Skidmore)

SCOTUS: “The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority on Monday appeared ready to rule that a Christian web designer has a right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages in a case the liberal justices said could empower certain businesses to discriminate based on constitutional free speech protections.” Reuters

HEALTH: “The spread of RSV appears to be slowing, though Covid cases have risen since Thanksgiving and flu hospitalizations remain at a decade high, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday.” NBC News

ECONOMY: “From chicken wings to used cars, inflation begins to ease its grip” WaPo

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (8:45 am) and then travel to Phoenix, Arizona, a key battleground state. While in Phoenix, Biden will tour a newly opened TSMC semiconductor chip plant (3:30 pm) and deliver remarks on his manufacturing agenda (4 pm). He’ll then return to Washington.

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to Arizona.

Legislative Branch

The Senate will convene (10 am) and vote later in the day on confirming two judicial nominees:

  • F. Kay Behm, to be a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan
  • Kelley Hodge, to be a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The House will convene (9 am) and vote on at least one piece of legislation: the Veteran Service Recognition Act, which would protect non-citizens serving in the military from deportation by giving them an opportunity to file for lawful permanent resident status.

Congressional leaders will hold a ceremony (11 am) to award the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Congress, to the U.S. Capitol Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers who protected the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

The House voted 406-21 last year to award the medal to the officers; the Senate voted unanimously to do so.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in two cases:

👋 Before I go...

Here’s something fun: Happy birthday to the world’s oldest living land animal.

Jonathan, a tortoise living on the British island of St. Helena, celebrated his 190th birthday with a three-day bash this weekend. Per Semafor, the festivities included “a tortoise-friendly birthday cake — made of his favorite fruits and vegetables, including carrots, apples, and pears.”

More Jonathan details you didn’t know you needed, courtesy of The Guardian:

“He has also been at the heart of romantic intrigue: after a period of irritability, Jonathan was presented with a mate in 1991 with whom he happily developed an intimate relationship. But 26 years later the lack of offspring was explained when his amorous partner — Frederica — turned out, upon inspection, to be a male.”

To put Jonathan’s long life in perspective: he is believed to have been born in 1832, meaning he has lived through the tenures of all but six U.S. presidents. He is older than the automobile, radio, airplanes, television, computers, and the Internet — and every human currently alive by a good 70 years.

And that’s just an estimate. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “in all likelihood, he is even older than we think.”

split image jonathan oldest chelonian
Left: Jonathan in the 1880s. Right: Jonathan in the 2020s. (Guiness Book of World Records)

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— Gabe