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Five things to watch in the Georgia Senate runoff

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(NEXSTAR) — The last act of the 2022 midterms plays out on Tuesday, when voters in Georgia go to the polls in the Senate runoff election.

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More than 1.8 million Georgians have cast their ballots prior to Election Day as Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and former football star Herschel Walker (R) duke it out.

The runoff was required because, under Georgia law, a candidate needs to win more than 50 percent of all votes cast in order to be elected.

Warnock topped the poll on Nov. 8 but fell just short of 50 percent in a field that included a Libertarian candidate.

What are the things to watch on Tuesday?

Can Election Day turnout save Walker?

Early voting turnout for the runoff has been exceptionally strong — something that almost certainly benefits Warnock.

The state repeatedly broke its one-day record for early voting in recent days, topping things off with a turnout of more than 350,000 voters last Friday.

That’s important for Warnock for several reasons.

First, Democrats generally benefit from high turnout.

Second, there have been long lines in the heavily Democratic counties in the Atlanta area. 

Third, Democrats cast about 52 percent of early ballots whereas Republicans cast only 39 percent, according to data provided by TargetSmart to NBC News.

Those figures suggest Walker has a significant hill to climb. 

On the other hand, the same-day vote tends to favor Republicans. 

The former University of Georgia football star will be desperately hoping for a big turnout on Tuesday.

Are the polls wrong, again?

Opinion polls taken since the Nov. 8 general election clearly point to a Warnock victory, albeit a narrow one.

There have been five major polls released since the start of December. Walker has not led in any of them. 

A poll for The Hill from Emerson College, released Dec. 1, put Warnock up by 2 percentage points. 

The same survey also pointed to pessimism among Georgia Republicans. 

Spencer Kimball, the executive director of Emerson College Polling, said at the time that despite Warnock’s advantage “being well within the poll’s margin of error, a Walker win would surprise the majority of voters. About 1 in 5 Republicans expect their nominee to lose.”

The four other major polls put Warnock ahead by between 3 and 5 points.

All of that being said, pollsters have hardly had a stellar record in recent years, missing former President Trump’s 2016 victory, overestimating President Biden’s likely 2020 margin and, just last month, pointing to a better Election Day for the GOP than what actually materialized.

The same goes for the Georgia contest. 

Right before the first round of voting, data and polling site FiveThirtyEight gave Walker a 63 percent chance of prevailing, while the RealClearPolitics polling average had the Republican up by 1.4 percentage points. 

When the votes were counted, Warnock had an advantage of about 1 point.

Walker needs the polls to be wrong again — this time in the opposite direction — on Tuesday.

How does Trump react?

Donald Trump had a very disappointing midterm elections, with many of his most high-profile endorsees losing.

The poor performance began a cascade of events that have left the former president looking weaker than he has for some time.

First, Trump-skeptical Republicans were newly emboldened to argue he was hurting the party. Next, Trump delivered an underwhelming speech at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Nov. 15 to launch his 2024 candidacy. Then, he was enmeshed in controversy for a full week after having dinner with two prominent antisemites: Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes. 

On Saturday, Trump incited yet more controversy with a social media posting calling for his own reinstatement as president and the “termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

In Georgia, Trump prodded Walker to run in the first place and endorsed him.

But Walker’s many weaknesses as a candidate are a problem. 

The Republican nominee has been accused of encouraging two ex-girlfriends to have abortions despite his public anti-abortion position, as well as exaggerating his business successes and ties to law enforcement.

If he loses, watch whether Trump disowns him, tries to place the blame elsewhere or simply goes quiet.

Either way, such an outcome would again strengthen the case of those Republicans arguing the party needs to move on from the 45th president.

Of course, if Walker wins, Trump can draw a belated measure of vindication from the result.

Has Walker lost the middle?

One data point from Nov. 8 was especially stark: Walker won roughly 200,000 fewer votes than his party colleague in the state, Gov. Brian Kemp. 

Kemp won reelection comfortably over Democrat Stacey Abrams.

That pointed to a potentially grave problem for Walker — a seeming inability to connect with moderate Republicans and independent voters.

Exit polls indicate that Warnock bested Walker by 11 points among the roughly one-in-four voters who consider themselves independent. Among self-described “moderates,” Warnock’s margin was much larger again — more than 30 points.

Since then, Walker has been caught up in yet another furor, this time amid reports that he got a tax break on a property in Texas that is only intended to be used for someone’s primary residence.

Again, it is possible that Walker pulls out a surprise on Tuesday. But that scenario requires a significant improvement among independent voters

Does Warnock thank Biden?

Warnock has played a shrewd political game in a state where Biden’s approval ratings are well underwater.

The incumbent Democrat has stressed his efforts to reach across the aisle, working with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on highway improvements and maternal mortality, respectively, 

He has also been more eager to stress local, practical gains, like securing investments in the port of Savannah, than to wrap himself in the Democratic flag.

Biden, for his part, has also kept his distance. The president on Friday showed up to support volunteers making phone calls to help Warnock — from Massachusetts.

If Warnock wins, it’ll be worth noting whether he name-checks Biden in a victory speech or tries to maintain his independent image.

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