Georgia returns to the polls in tiebreaker midterms vote for US Senate seat
Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left,Herschel Walker. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgians return to the polls on Tuesday for a run-off vote taking place a mere four weeks after they cast their ballots in this year’s US midterm elections. This final vote could give Democrats a slightly more comfortable majority in the Senate. On the ballot for the first time running as major party nominees are two Black men: Herschel Walker, the Donald Trump-backed Republican candidate and former football star, and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent and Baptist pastor.

Following big Democratic wins in Nevada and Arizona that sealed their control of the Senate last month, a win in the run-off vote in Georgia on Tuesday, December 6 would give Democrats a slightly more comfortable majority there. This is important, says Steven Ekovich, a professor specialised in US politics at the American University of Paris, as several Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona “like to keep the Senate hostage” by not always voting along party lines. It would also help reduce the need for Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote on major pieces of legislation.

More symbolically however, a win in Georgia would be an “important landmark victory” for Democrats because of its “historical ties” to the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, explains Cécile Coquet-Mokoko, a professor of American Civilisation at France's Université St-Quentin. Former president Barack Obama has also thrown his weight behind Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and the junior senator from Georgia since January 2021, campaigning with him as recently as Thursday night in Georgia.

Two firsts

This race is also significant as it is the first time that two Black men, each viewed very differently by Georgia’s Black community, are major party nominees vying for a seat in the Senate. Exit polls from November 9 indicated that 90% of Black people voted for Warnock, while 70% of White people voted for Herschel Walker, a former football star who played at the University of Georgia and then in the NFL for 12 seasons. According to Ekovich, Walker is popular among many White voters because he “conforms to their caricature of what a Black man is like, for instance, that he is abusive towards women.”

Since launching his campaign, Walker has faced damning allegations of domestic abuse, infidelity and volatile behaviour. His ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend have both claimed that he threatened to shoot them in the head. A pro-life candidate, he has also been accused of paying for the abortions of two women with whom he had been in relationships. Walker is “one of Donald Trump’s imitators”, Coquet-Mokoko adds, as he has presented himself as someone who is not part of the political system, who will represent the average citizen and not worry about allegations of sexual abuse, the latter which would have been “political suicide” had they been revealed in a pre-Trump era.

This is the first time that the battleground state of Georgia will hold a run-off vote since Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed the SB 202 bill into law on March 25, 2021. In a state already known for voter suppression tactics, this new collection of voting laws, among other things, reduces the time between the midterm and run-off elections from 9 to 4 weeks, meaning that new voters can’t sign up to vote as the November 7 deadline will have passed, and provides domestic and absentee mail-in ballot voters a much shorter window to cast their ballots on time. Coquet-Mokoko explains that these voter suppression laws “could heavily impact the election if there is a high Republican voter turn-out, as it is a well-known fact that Democratic voters tend to vote by mail or do early voting.” She adds: “Georgians have had to cope with a long history of voter suppression. The run-off, after all, is itself a legacy of voter suppression.” Despite this, voters stood in long lines and turned out in record numbers for the first day of early voting in Georgia on October 17.

This run-off vote also “in a sense represents the dilemma playing out in the Republican party, over what to do with its Trump base and how to return to a party that is centred around conservative principles,” rather than just garnering media attention, says Eskovich. Following underwhelming performances by many Trump-endorsed candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Eskovich and Sean Safford, an Associate Professor at SciencePo Paris, agree that if Walker loses Tuesday’s vote, which the latest poll suggests he will, these elections will have proven that Trump’s grip on the Republican party is loosening. It will also demonstrate that his strategy of backing a high-profile person who is willing to “toe the line” and “demonstrate their allegiance to Trump” will no longer ensure widespread support from the electorate.

Looking to the future

Youth turnout (ages 18-29) for the 2022 midterm elections was the second-highest in nearly three decades, according to the Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (Circle). This seems to suggest, says Coquet-Mokoko, that more young people are becoming aware of the racial history behind voter suppression laws, especially ones made into law in southern states during the height of the Jim Crow period, as well as the importance of voting.

Following the House of Representative’s decision to pass legislation codifying same-sex marriage nationwide on July 19, as a result of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade on June 24, Coquet-Mokoko feels that Georgia could be used as an example of the “need to protect voting rights”. That is, if Democrats are brave enough to put forward a bill reinforcing the Voting Act of 1965, which was introduced to prohibit racially discriminatory vote-running practices throughout the country, especially in southern states. It could ultimately be a great way for Republicans and Democrats to come together, as both sides “feel that their right to vote is being threatened,” concludes Coquet-Mokoko.