The first stop: Cobb County, where Kemp lost about 4.5 percentage points and Walker about 16 percentage points.
There, in part of the Atlanta suburbs, lies a diversifying borough where voters once enthusiastically supported Republicans like Mitt Romney but developed a dislike for Trump. And it’s the kind of place where a significant segment of voters appear to have split their tickets, likely supporting both Kemp and Warnock, the Democrat.
In all, about 203,130 Georgia voters cast their ballots for Kemp but not Walker, a candidate they rejected after Walker’s campaign was repeatedly plagued by allegations of domestic violence, absenteeism and hypocrisy regarding abortion, as well as his own odd or false statements had been besieged. Ultimately, Walker received 48.49 percent of the vote, significantly less than Kemp’s 53.4 percent in the general election. And to win the runoff, he needs the support of as many ticket shards as he can find.
Of course, those same voters are also at the forefront for Warnock, who has made it his goal to fight personally to keep split-ticket voters who have backed him and Kemp from defecting to Walker. He even featured one such voter in a recent campaign ad.
“Warnock really needs to make an effort to get those types of voters,” said Gunner Ramer, policy director of the Republican Accountability Project, which has been trying to slow the advance of Trump-backed candidates in the midterms. “They are still the crucial block of voters in these suspension seats. They rejected Donald Trump in 2020 and they rejected Trump-like candidates in 2022.”
Warnock received about 40,000 more votes than Walker, but with the presence of a Libertarian candidate in the race, neither candidate won more than half the vote — triggering a runoff in Georgia. Neither the Kemp campaign nor the Walker campaign offered comment.
As the campaigns sprint to the December 6 runoff, split-ticket voters are emerging as a rare pool of people who could actually be up for grabs in a race where no further voter registration is allowed. This is the result of legislation passed by the GOP last year and signed by Kemp that reduced the period between the general election and the runoff to four weeks but left the requirement for new voters to register at least 30 days before an election. In 2022, that meant the last day to register for a possible special election was November 7 — the day before the general election. The change enraged Democrats and voting rights activists, who accused Republicans of doing it solely for political reasons.
“They don’t want to expand the electorate,” said Kendra Cotton, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams that has worked to register and mobilize new voters. “You know Georgia is tanning and getting younger at a steep pace. Why do you want to attract more voters leading us to a progressive future?”
When Warnock won his seat in early 2021, the nine-week runoff allowed time to add new voters to the electorate — and organizations like Cotton’s focused on bringing transplants, people who had just turned 18, and other new electorates into the electorate 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 eventually won by 93,550 votes, and his race — along with another Georgia Senate race the same day — secured Democrats narrow control of the Senate.
Well, “you can’t put nearly as much effort into going out and looking and finding individuals, I think that probably works against Democrats,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Instead, both parties try to take out their base while also convincing the Ticket Shards. The 81,365 voters — about 2 percent of the total — who supported third-party candidate Libertarian Chase Oliver are also up for election.
Democrats have already secured the 50 seats they need to control the Senate, lowering the stakes for this runoff from the bonanza that was unfolding in 2020 and 2021. Still, national activists on both sides are pouring money into the competition.
“Yes, we’re doing it again,” Warnock said in a recent ad, blinking at the sense of déjà vu unifying Georgia voters after two years of near-constant elections.
On the same day that Walker stood with Kemp last week, Warnock feuded with Republicans who had split their tickets between him and Kemp and expressed confidence they would stick with him.
“Georgia hasn’t traditionally been a split-ticket state,” he told FOX 5 Atlanta, a local television station, “but they’ve shown themselves in remarkable ways for me.”
During the general election, Kemp had kept Walker and his scandal-plagued campaign at a distance. Now everyone who supports Walker is hoping for as much Kemp – and as little Trump – as possible.
“There’s nobody here with more political capital than Kemp, so that’s a huge advantage for Herschel,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican activist in Georgia who worked for former Gov. Nathan Deal.
It all boils down to unpredictable dynamics, and there are many competing theories as to who the ticket splitters will help most in the runoff and how. Robinson said Walker’s main hope isn’t in convincing November’s ticket-splitters to change their minds, but in the possibility that they won’t return to the election without Kemp.
“Herschel Walker cannot have a strategy to convert Warnock voters. It doesn’t work,” Robinson said. “His best bet is that people who voted for Kemp and Warnock aren’t coming back.”
Ramer, the Republican activist who is opposed to Trump-leaning candidates, said that since the runoff won’t determine control of the Senate, moderate Republicans uncomfortable with Walker may feel they can support Warnock if they turn out at all.
Kemp’s vaunted Georgians First operation, dubbed Georgians First, is now working on Walker’s behalf in conjunction with the Senate Leadership Fund, the super-PAAC, which is affiliated with Senator Mitch McConnell. Kemp’s machine could help counteract Democrat turnout efforts 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 Sen. Jon Ossoff and President Biden win the state in 2020 and 2021.
And progressive groups insist they are not letting up despite being unable to register new voters and having less time to build turnout than they did before the 2021 runoff. Democrats went to court to expand early voting, trying to use every possible election day squeeze out in a shortened election period. On Tuesday, an appeals court upheld a decision allowing early voting this Saturday; Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger previously said allowing voting that day would conflict with another state law that prohibits such voting immediately after a state holiday.
Alejandro Chavez, deputy director of the GALEO Impact Fund, which mobilized Latino voters in support of Warnock, said his organization’s bilingual campaigners had been knocking on doors three days after the general election.
“The numbers are there for us when we can mobilize all the different communities,” Chavez said.
And in a race where margins are likely to be tight, some Democrats are warning the Warnock campaign against focusing on ticket splitters at the expense of grassroots Democratic voters.
“I expect the margins will be small and tight. Senator Warnock must continue to engage deeply and meaningfully with black and colored voters,” said Abigail Collazo, Democratic strategist and former adviser to the New Georgia Project. “It’s just as important as making sure Kemp-Warnock voters stay with them.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.