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CANTON, Ga. — With the last campaigns only two days in the rearview mirror, the political world dived into a Georgia Senate race that will reveal the extent of Democrats’ unexpected traction in the midterm races and whether Republicans can move past the long shadow of former President Donald J. Trump.
The outcome of a Georgia runoff election between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and Herschel Walker, the Republican former football star, may determine control of the Senate, though that remained unclear on Thursday evening as votes continued to be counted in Senate races in Arizona and Nevada.
One certainty: The runoff, on Dec. 6, won’t be cheap. The candidates and their allies have already spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars on the Georgia contest this cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a research group that tracks money in politics. Last year, Mr. Warnock won his seat in a runoff for a special election alongside Senator Jon Ossoff’s concurrent Senate runoff. Those contests were the most expensive in congressional history, according to the group.
Now, as Georgia enters its third runoff contest in less than two years, it all feels a little bit like Groundhog Day for Georgia voters, politicians and strategists. Donors are being tapped for another round of big checks. Campaigns are trying to woo prominent surrogates to the state. And voters are bracing for another month of nonstop campaign advertising that will continue through Thanksgiving.
On Thursday, Mr. Walker was back on his campaign bus heading to Republican strongholds in the Atlanta exurbs alongside Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. In the morning, he met with Gov. Brian Kemp to discuss how the newly re-elected governor could support his runoff campaign, according to a Republican briefed on the conversation. That could indicate that the state party will rally around his bid, marking a shift from the general election, when Mr. Kemp kept his distance from Mr. Walker’s tarnished political brand
But Thursday was about firing up his base of voters in the areas that have overwhelmingly supported his candidacy from its onset. More than 1,000 people filled a tent outside a brewery in Canton to see Mr. Walker and Mr. Cruz, who prematurely declared that “control of the Senate will be decided by the men and women of Georgia.”
Mr. Walker kept to the same broad points of his stump speech on Thursday, combining highlights from his personal story with criticisms of Mr. Warnock. He railed against the senator’s recognition of systemic racism in the United States and his votes for President Biden’s policies before delving into talking points about crime, inflation and immigration. He also used athletic parallels to describe the runoff, calling it “overtime.”
“We’re not going to divide this house under my watch,” he said, encouraging the crowd of supporters, many of them sporting University of Georgia gear and red caps and carrying American flags.
Mr. Warnock addressed supporters in Atlanta, surrounded by close to 100 people holding signs bearing a “one more time” slogan. “You have to admit that I did warn y’all that we might be spending Thanksgiving together,” Mr. Warnock told a crowd in Atlanta on Thursday. “And here we are.”
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The runoff campaign began as Democratic Senate candidates held a durable lead in Arizona and gained mail ballots in Nevada, leading some in the party to feel cautiously optimistic about retaining control of the chamber. Republican chances looked stronger in the House, where the party had won or was leading in the races for 221 seats, which is three more than it needs to retake the chamber.
Runoff elections are a hangover from Jim Crow-era laws meant to diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote. In Georgia, runoffs are triggered when neither candidate clears 50 percent. With more than 95 percent of ballots counted on Thursday afternoon, neither of the top candidates had a pathway to a majority. Mr. Warnock had 49.4 percent of the vote to Mr. Walker’s 48.5 percent, a difference of about 35,000 votes. (The Libertarian candidate, Chase Oliver, had 2.1 percent, about 81,000 votes.)
The contest will test whether voters remain motivated by issues like abortion rights that drove Democrats to victories in the midterms or are more eager to deliver a strong rebuke of the administration over economic issues and public safety fears.
Republicans have been quick to blame Mr. Trump for their losses, pointing to the number of candidates whom he helped lift to primary victories — like Mr. Walker — but who then faltered against Democrats. So far, Mr. Warnock has been able to stay above Mr. Biden’s underwater approval rating in the state, a dynamic he must maintain to win the runoff. Separating his standing from Mr. Biden’s could grow more difficult if control of the Senate is at stake.
Standing on Thursday in front of a mural of former Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, Mr. Warnock delivered a campaign speech that celebrated the gains of the last several months of his campaign and reignited a fleet of attack lines on Mr. Walker. Mr. Warnock has cast himself as a bipartisan deal maker, playing up his work lowering the cost of insulin, as well as investments in infrastructure and agriculture. He has contrasted his record with Mr. Walker’s lack of political experience.
“This race is about competence. It also requires an awareness of the challenges facing Georgians and a willingness and ability to work with them to address them,” he said. “Herschel Walker has shown us that he’s not capable.”
Much of the Senate race has revolved around questions of trust, with each candidate assailing the other as unprepared and untrustworthy. Mr. Walker, a staunch supporter of abortion bans, has been dogged by claims that he paid for two ex-girlfriends to end their pregnancies, exaggerations of his business achievements, falsehoods about his work with the military and law enforcement and allegations of violence against his ex-wife.
That rocky personal history repelled crucial swing voters and even some Republicans. In this week’s elections, Mr. Walker underperformed Mr. Kemp, who cruised to re-election on Tuesday night by nearly five points. His losses were particularly severe among swing voters in the Atlanta suburbs and with independent voters. Mr. Kemp split that group nearly evenly, while Mr. Walker lost them by 11 points.
To win, Mr. Walker must curb his losses among swing voters and strengthen turnout with his own party, a trick that may be easier if the stakes include not just his candidacy but control of the Senate. Should Arizona and Nevada hand control of the Senate to Democrats, Georgia Republicans may feel less motivated to turn out for Mr. Walker.
“In order for Herschel Walker to be successful, we Republicans have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Heath Garrett, a former chief of staff to the former Georgia senator Johnny Isakson. “We’re going to have to turn out the base. And then we’ve got to get permission for college-educated men and women in the suburbs to show back up and vote for Herschel.”
A crucial part of their strategy depends on presenting a united front to Georgia Republicans, by bringing top surrogates to the state to campaign with Mr. Walker. People close to the campaign mentioned Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, two of the party’s biggest stars, as potentially helpful for building enthusiasm for Mr. Walker among the Republican base.
Negotiations with Mr. Trump are even more complicated. The former president has known Mr. Walker for nearly four decades and championed his primary bid over the concerns of a Republican establishment. Yet he stayed away from the state in the primaries, even as he hosted large rallies for other candidates that he endorsed.
On Thursday, discussions over Mr. Trump’s role were underway between Republicans at the Walker campaign headquarters in Georgia, the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington and those working at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
In addition to a Trump rally, one other option floated was to enlist Mr. Trump as an uber-financier, anchoring him in his South Florida mansion for a series of fund-raisers to help raise some of the tens of millions of dollars that could be needed to support Mr. Walker, according to a person briefed on the matter who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations about strategy.
Mr. Trump has assured people he does not believe he will hurt Mr. Walker if he goes into the state, although others are less sanguine. The state is particularly fraught terrain for the former president, who prompted a battle royal within the Georgia Republican Party with his false claims about a stolen election in 2020. Some in the party blamed Mr. Trump for costing them the majority by hurting their efforts in two simultaneous runoffs last year.
For his part, Mr. Walker has sought to link Mr. Warnock to the embattled president. He has also undercut Mr. Warnock’s credentials as minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the country’s most storied Black churches. He has attacked the more than $7,000 monthly housing allowance the church gives to Mr. Warnock and the church’s ownership of an Atlanta apartment building that tried to evict some residents. Mr. Warnock denies the evictions.
Under the voting law Georgia passed last year, the state’s runoff period has been shortened from nine weeks to four. That gives the campaigns and allied organizers less time than they are accustomed to having to coordinate events and mobilize an already tuckered-out electorate that has been asked to vote in three heated elections in the last two years.
Neither party shows any sign of pulling back from the contest. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ official campaign arm, will spend $7 million to mobilize voters in the Georgia runoff race, the organization announced on Thursday. A day earlier, the Senate Republican campaign committee asked donors to contribute directly to a joint account between it and Mr. Walker’s campaign.
“We need people to just keep the energy going for four more weeks,” said Representative Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, who noted that Thanksgiving would coincide with the final weeks of the campaigns. “My biggest concern is enough Georgians not understanding what’s at stake in this election.”
Maya King reported from Canton, Ga., and Lisa Lerer from New York. Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.