Prince Williams/Wireimage; Cindy Ord/Getty Raphael Warnock, Herschel Walker
As the U.S. Senate race in Georgia heads to a runoff, Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a matchup that could determine which party controls the Senate. Immediately after the midterms ended in no clear winner, both parties began sending millions of dollars to the state, investing in field operations as a means of ensuring voters turn up to the polls again on Dec. 6.
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will face off once more in Georgia's runoff election next month after neither candidate reached the required 50% vote threshold to win the race outright.
Politico reports that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is spending $7 million to get out the vote in Georgia, investing in direct voter contact programs like door-to-door canvassing.
As organizers will not be able to register new voters as part of those efforts, Politico reports that the primary focus will be on ensuring the party's base gets to the polls in December.
Republicans have turned their attention to the runoff, too, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announcing he will be in Georgia Thursday to campaign for Walker as part of a bus tour.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) November 9, 2022
In addition to urging their own voters to return to the polls, Republicans and Democrats will be vying for another slice of the political pie: the libertarian vote.
While neither Warnock nor Walker received 50% of the vote needed to win the election on Tuesday, Libertarian Chase Oliver won 2.1% of the vote — a percentage that, had it gone for Warnock or Walker, would have delivered them the race outright.
As only the top two candidates will advance to the runoff, Warnock and Walker will each be vying for the roughly 80,000 votes that went to Oliver on Tuesday.
Speaking to Reason magazine, Oliver said he plans to reach out to both the Warnock and Walker campaigns about a forum in which "they can come speak long-form to libertarian, independent voters and seek to earn their vote if they so choose."
"I think it's still a very wide-open race for this runoff campaign, and I think that should really implore both the major-party candidates to start reaching out and speaking to libertarian voters and their values, because that's how they're going to win this race," he told the outlet.
Oliver has previously criticized both candidates — Walker for not properly articulating the message of small government and for failing to show up to debates, and Warnock for inflation and ongoing dysfunction in Washington.
With the runoff just weeks away, Oliver maintains he won't endorse either candidate, saying at a recent debate: "It's not my job to make a decision for you on who to support in a theoretical runoff."
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Herschel Walker
Emory University Professor Andra Gillespie tells PEOPLE that some of the libertarian votes could have been "protest votes" against Walker (in other words, Republican voters who supported other GOP candidates on the ballot, but did not want to support the former football player).
But even so, she argues that the runoff won't be decided by libertarian votes. It will hinge, instead, on turnout.
Gillespie notes a stark difference in the number of votes for Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who received an estimated 2.1 million, and Walker, who received an estimated 1.9 million.
"I think the difference in ballots cast for Walker versus Kemp, means there are some voters who voted for governor, but didn't vote for Senate as a means of registering their dissent," she says.
Getting those voters to turn out again, especially in early December, could prove an uphill ballot for Republicans.
"The issue will be who shows up," she says. "There are people who are going to forget. They will get caught up in the holidays."
And then there are others who may feel defeated depending on what happens with the races in Nevada and Arizona.
If Democrats take Nevada (where ballots are still being counted) and hang on to Arizona (where vote-counting remains ongoing but Democrats show signs of an early lead) the party would keep control of the U.S. Senate — thereby putting much less pressure on the Georgia race for both parties. But if Republicans can win just one of those states, the fate of the Senate will hinge on the Georgia runoff.
"We know there is a sliver — but a potentially decisive sliver — of Republican voters who don't want to vote for Herschel Walker," Gillespie says. "They could still change their mind and decide that gaining control of the Senate is more important to them."
Even if Democrats are able to gain control of the Senate before the Georgia runoff, they'll still be eager to get out the vote for Warnock.
"Democrats are playing for keeps, regardless of whether they are trying to win the 49th, 50th or 51st Senate seat," Gillespie tells PEOPLE. "Georgia Democrats have a lot to prove. They want to win a state-wide election in a non-Trump year — just to prove they are as competitive as they say they are."
She continues: "They've got to provide more than one data point from the 2020 election. They have to show multiple data points, in order to demonstrate a trend."
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Runoffs in Georgia are nothing new, as the same situation occurred in 2020. In that runoff, Warnock defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler during round two in Jan. 2021. It was the first time since 2014 that Democrats gained control of the state, as 35-year-old Jon Ossoff also won for the Democratic Party that year.
Warnock's 2020 campaigns drew immense funding and attracted the likes of President-elect Joe Biden, former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Mike Pence, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who all appeared at campaign events in-person or virtually to rally voters.
Meanwhile, Walker has seen endorsements and the backing of the Republican Party despite a string of controversies in recent months, including allegations that the anti-choice candidate quietly urged two women to get abortions — claims he has vehemently denied.