ATLANTA — As voters and campaigns around the country get ready for Tuesday’s climactic midterm elections, the candidates for governor of Georgia are already preparing for four weeks of overtime.
That’s the scenario on tap if neither Democrat Stacey Abrams nor Republican Brian Kemp is able to clinch more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election — a distinct possibility given the too-close-to-call public polling and the presence of a Libertarian candidate, Ted Metz, on the ballot. Under Georgia law, if no general election candidate secures a majority, the top two finishers advance to a runoff, which would take place on Dec. 4 for this year’s governor’s race.
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There has never been a general election runoff for governor in Georgia. But while both Abrams and Kemp have stubbornly maintained that they are focused on winning outright on Tuesday, behind the scenes, their campaigns are laying the groundwork for an extra 28 days on the trail — assembling legal teams for potential legal fights over Tuesday’s vote and stockpiling money to jump-start a runoff campaign.
“The possibility of a runoff is certainly there,” said Eric Holder, the former Obama administration attorney general who campaigned for Abrams over the weekend. He continued: “I can tell you we are in this to win and so we want to win on Nov. 6, but if it goes beyond that, the resources of the party will be directed at whatever comes after.”
Kemp, Georgia’s sitting secretary of state, has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars since July in funds he can use only for a general election runoff, according to state campaign finance reports. The stockpile would allow his campaign to start its runoff efforts immediately on Wednesday before fundraising for the runoff in earnest.
Abrams has raised less specifically for a runoff since July — less than $100,000, according to campaign finance reports stretching to the last week of October — but her campaign has established a major online fundraising base that could start refilling the Democrat’s campaign coffers the moment a runoff is declared. Abrams has raised millions online in recent months, according to filings by ActBlue, the Democratic digital fundraising platform used by Abrams’ campaign.
Meanwhile, both campaigns have studied up on Georgia’s runoff and recount rules and put together teams of lawyers to deal with any issues that come up in Tuesday’s vote ahead of a possible runoff, according to multiple people in both parties who are familiar with the preparations.
It’s no sure thing that a runoff is coming, and both campaigns have stubbornly maintained public focus on Tuesday’s vote alone.
“The Stacey Abrams for governor campaign is firing on all cylinders to ensure we win outright on November 6th. But we also acknowledge that our opponent is the nation’s foremost architect of voter suppression and has already demonstrated his willingness to cheat his way to victory,” Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said in a statement to POLITICO. “By running a large scale GOTV operation, securing a robust legal team and making historic investments in voter protection to ensure every eligible voter can cast a ballot, our campaign is preparing for every scenario on election night and ready to fight for every vote.”
Kemp campaign communications director Ryan Mahoney put it succinctly: “We are working around the clock to win on November 6th. That’s the goal. Singular focus,” Mahoney wrote in an email.
If the race does continue beyond Tuesday, it could turn into a spectacle unlike anything Georgia has seen before — and this is the state that hosted the 2017 special House election between GOP Rep. Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff, which became the most expensive House race in history.
The race between Abrams and Kemp has attracted outsize national attention. Kemp has been a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, who rallied for the Republican on Sunday, and Vice President Mike Pence also stumped in Georgia on Kemp’s behalf. Abrams, who would be the first female African-American governor in U.S. history if she wins, has gotten support from former President Barack Obama and an array of Democratic surrogates.
Attention on the race will only increase if it becomes the biggest contest left unresolved after the midterms and has the national political news mostly to itself, said Eric Tannenblatt, who served as chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, now the secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
“Money is not going to be a problem for the runoff, because there’s going to be money that’s pouring in from all over the place,” Tannenblatt said. “And especially given the historic nature of this election, which has clearly captured the attention of the national media.”
The most recent precedent for a post-November runoff in Georgia was in 2008, when Democrat Jim Martin held Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss under 50 percent of the vote but Chambliss won by double digits in December.
Republicans argue that a runoff situation would be to Kemp’s advantage, as runoff voters lean older and wealthier — traditional Republican-leaning categories.
But Abrams’ campaign has put a strong focus on expanding the electorate, and Holder said this election could be different.
“I’m focused, as I said, on voting on Nov. 6, but I don’t think a lot of the old rules apply,” said Holder. “Let’s face it. You have an African-American woman who’s running neck-and-neck with a sitting secretary of state with a statewide reputation. That breaks all of the old rules. I don’t think a post-6th effort would necessarily adhere to those rules either.”
Bryan Tyson, a Georgia attorney who specializes in campaigns and political action committees, said Democratic or Republican enthusiasm could increase even more in a runoff situation.
“With all the national attention that this race has gotten already, will the enthusiasm ramp up even more if there’s a runoff?” Tyson said. “I don’t know for the Democratic side if that will be the case or not, but I think that’s one variable that is maybe going to be different in a Georgia runoff.”