A ruling that will allow Democratic-heavy counties to begin early voting on Saturday in Georgia’s Senate runoff is poised to deliver an advantage to incumbent Raphael Warnock and set another hurdle for Republican Herschel Walker, who must find a way to motivate tepid Republicans to turn out to vote on Dec. 6.
Although the race is considered a toss-up, Mr. Walker is seen as the underdog after failing to win more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 8 general election and underperforming Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who won reelection outright with a 7-percentage-point lead over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.
Neither Mr. Warnock nor Mr. Walker topped 50% in the election, falling short of the support needed to avoid a runoff. Mr. Walker finished behind Mr. Warnock by about 35,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast.
Both parties are eager to claim the seat. Although Democrats held on to the Senate majority in the midterm elections, the runoff gives the party a chance to increase its ranks to 51. Still, Democrats’ power to get legislation to President Biden’s desk will be blunted by a new Republican majority in the House.
Republicans hope to keep the Senate evenly split with a Walker victory, although the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris ensures Democrats have control of the gavel.
An appeals court delivered a blow to the Walker campaign on Monday by rejecting state election officials’ efforts to block early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Democratic Party and Warnock campaign attorneys fought in court for the polls to be opened on Saturday. Republicans said law prohibits it. Now that Democrats have won the right to vote on Saturday, it is expected to give an additional boost to Mr. Warnock.
The Georgia Republican Party hasn’t organized Saturday voting in any of its strongholds, and only Democratic-heavy areas in major cities such as Atlanta have plans in place to open the polls on Saturday.
“This poses additional challenges to Republicans, who instead should have been pushing for all 160 counties to offer Saturday voting,” Georgia pollster Matt Towery said.
Republican counties, Mr. Towery said, “tend to be smaller and can’t gear up on short notice” for voting to begin on Saturday in light of the ruling.
Democrats have worked to define Mr. Walker, 60, a former college football star and NFL player, as ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the job of a senator. Mr. Walker also has been dogged by accusations from former girlfriends that he paid for and encouraged them to have abortions. Those claims have damaged his credibility as a pro-life candidate and family man.
Celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents one of the women, held a press conference Tuesday to rebut denials by Mr. Walker that he pressured the woman into getting an abortion three decades ago while he was married and the two were having an affair.
Mr. Walker has said he does not know the woman. The unidentified accuser on Tuesday dared Mr. Walker to meet with her in person.
Jessica Taylor, a Cook Political Report editor who tracks Senate races, said Mr. Walker’s subpar performance on Nov. 8 could also drag him down in the runoff.
An AARP poll shows Mr. Warnock leading Mr. Warner by 4 percentage points, although the lead is within the margin of error.
Among the critical independent bloc of voters, Mr. Warnock was ahead by 15 points, the poll showed.
“That’s very substantial,” Ms. Taylor said. “And those are the voters that decide elections in close states like Georgia.”
Mr. Walker and Republican groups have spent only $5.4 million on advertising.
Republicans are poised to catch up. The Senate Leadership Fund, which is the super PAC aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has pledged to spend $14.2 million to help defeat Mr. Warnock.
Ms. Taylor said Mr. Kemp’s involvement could help, but it’s not clear how persuasive it will be after Mr. Walker was unable to win anywhere near the level of support when he was lined up alongside other statewide Republican candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“The blinking red light for me is how much he underperformed those other Republicans,” Ms. Taylor said. “And when he is the only Republican on the ballot, are those people going to come back out?”
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at email@example.com.
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