The Jolt: Victory for Warnock cements Georgia as battleground state

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters following his runoff election victory over Republican Herschel Walker on Dec. 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller/AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters following his runoff election victory over Republican Herschel Walker on Dec. 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller/AJC)

Had U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock lost the runoff election to Herschel Walker the Democratic victories in 2020 might be seen as more of flukes than flips.

But his roughly 51% to 49% triumph over Walker on Tuesday deprives the GOP of a clean sweep of statewide offices. And it ensures that while Republicans will hold the constitutional offices at the state level for the next four years, both of Georgia’s U.S. senators will be Democrats.

The win also cements Georgia’s status as a competitive battleground state, where candidates of either party have a real shot of winning statewide. That makes it easier for both parties to pour money into the state ahead of 2024 and means Georgia will be a toss-up target for White House hopefuls in both camps.

Look no further for Georgia’s increasing electoral clout than President Joe Biden’s push to move the state up on the 2024 primary schedule, a change sure to be the subject of intense maneuvering in next year’s legislative session. And Atlanta is a finalist to host the Democratic National Convention in 2024.

“There’s no doubt that Georgia has arrived as one of the key swing states of national politics,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

Warnock told his ecstatic election watch party, “The people have spoken,” while Walker told his far more subdued crowd, “We put up one heck of a fight.”

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LISTEN UP. Our special election night edition of the Politically Georgia podcast is in your feed now.

We’ve got the highlights of the speeches from Warnock and Walker, a look behind the scenes as the returns came in, and where the results tell us about Georgia politics going forward.

Listen and subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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TRUMPED. Just minutes after U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory speech ended, a text came in from a senior Republican official: “Donald Trump is now 0-3 in Georgia Senate races.”

It was a reference to the 2021 defeats of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who were hindered by Trump’s obsession with overturning his election defeat in Georgia, and Herschel Walker’s candidacy.

In this photo from March 26, 2022, Herschel Walker campaigns for U.S. Senate as former President Donald Trump looks on. Walker lost Tuesday's runoff election despite Trump's endorsement. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

Walker, of course, was no second-tier figure when Trump endorsed his Senate bid. One of the most famous athletes in Georgia history, Walker entered the race last year with sky-high name recognition and instant front-runner status. He would likely have steamrolled his GOP competition with or without Trump’s influence.

But look for Trump’s role in the Senate race to inspire a new round of soul-searching from Republicans, who are ready for the party to move on from the 45th president and the drama he spins off.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an outspoken critic of both Trump and Walker. “Time to change course.”

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Supporters of  U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) hold signs during his campaign stop in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 19, 2022. Warnock won his reelection bid on Tuesday. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Credit: Nicole Craine/The New York Times

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Credit: Nicole Craine/The New York Times

WHERE IT HAPPENED. The one trend impossible to miss Tuesday night as returns came in were the large urban counties across the state where U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock posted wider margins than he did in November.

Those included Bibb County, where Warnock increased his margin from 23.9% over Walker grew to a 25.3% point lead, and Muscogee County, where the Democrat expanded his margin by nearly four percentage points, The same trend showed up in counties like Clarke, Richmond, and Rockdale.

At the same time, Herschel Walker was still picking up most of the rural counties he won last month, but with smaller margins of victory in crucial GOP strongholds like Paulding, Glynn, Tift, and Thomas counties.

Add Walker’s missed targets Tuesday night to the one-point race he trailed Warnock by in November, and you’ve got the roughly 2% margin Walker lost by in the end.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock waves at supporters after winning the senate runoff election on Dec. 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller/AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

BACK AT IT. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock didn’t allow himself much time to celebrate.

During his victory speech Tuesday night, he remarked that he would be headed back to Washington today to rejoin his Senate colleagues.

Warnock missed most votes while he focused on his runoff campaign in the past several weeks, but now that it’s over his presence is needed as Democrats hope to confirm more of President Joe Biden’s appointees.

Today, the Senate has a series of confirmation votes scheduled starting at 11:30 a.m.

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ABRAMS ONLINE. Stacey Abrams has keep an extremely low profile since losing her rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp last month.

But she’ll be online next week for a virtual book signing of “Stacey’s Remarkable Books,” her latest children’s title. Tickets to dial in are $19.99, with a signed book included in the deal.

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ISN’T THAT? Speaking of Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, anyone watching CNN on election night would have seen Duncan on set in Washington as the U.S. Senate returns came in.

Lt. Gov.  Geoff Duncan called Tuesday's election a "wake-up call for both parties." (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Duncan is starting to feel like a regular on the network, where he’s prone to drop viral truth bombs like his description last week of waiting for an hour to vote and walking out of the voting booth without choosing either Hershel Walker or Raphael Warnock.

On Tuesday night Duncan declared 2022 in Georgia to be “a wake-up call for both parties.”

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State Rep. Bee Nguyen, who lost her bid last month to become secretary of state, posted a photo of her "poll watcher" name badge on Tuesday as voters headed to the polls. (Steve Schaefer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

QUALIFIED. Some Georgia voters may have spotted a familiar face, and highly qualified poll watcher, at their Fulton County precinct Tuesday.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, posted a picture of her official “Poll Watcher” name badge Tuesday, along with a note that she was, “Reporting for duty!”

Nguyen lost her race to GOP Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger in November. Had she won instead, she would be prepping to oversee all state elections next year.

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TODAY IN WASHINGTON:

  • The U.S. Senate is focused on confirmations.
  • The U.S. House will begin debate on the National Defense Authorization Act.
  • The Supreme Court hears arguments on a case involving North Carolina’s congressional map and whether its state legislature has absolute authority to make all decisions regulating elections (meaning a governor, a state court, or federal courts can’t question it or intervene).

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Congressional leaders on Dec. 6, 2022, were divided over a slew of measures ensnaring the annual defense policy bill, including whether to include a provision to roll back the Pentagon’s mandate requiring troops to receive the coronavirus vaccine, a measure the White House and Defense secretary have staunchly resisted. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

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Credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

ENDING THE MANDATE. Finalized language for the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that outlines policies and spending priorities for the armed forces, would end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for men and women in active duty.

The coronavirus language has been a sticking point during negotiations over the bill, considered must-pass legislation each year. It appears that congressional language agreed to add it in over the objections of President Joe Biden.

Although the coronavirus vaccine won’t be required, members in the military still must get a series of other shots and health checks when they sign up for service.

Most of the bill’s other provisions are noncontroversial and, like in past years, would direct millions in funding to military installations across Georgia and posts across the world.

Amid all the dysfunction in Washington, Congress has managed to pass the N.D.A.A. every year since 1961.

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SPARE CHANGE. Looking ahead to the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Brian Kemp joined lawmakers in Athens Tuesday at the traditional biennial at the University of Georgia.

The twice-yearly training session is meant to share nuts and bolts guidance with newly elected state legislators. It’s also a place where leaders can lay out a portion of their agendas for the year ahead.

Our colleague James Salzer reports Kemp took the chance to pitch his plans to use the state’s considerable surplus to pay for another income tax rebate and a property tax cut for Georgians.

“This past week, I consulted with both Senate and House leadership on how we will address this issue in the coming session to provide further relief,” he said, without hinting what form that would take. “Though gas prices are, thankfully, trending down for the moment, we’re taking nothing for granted.

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GROWING PAINS. The little town of Rincon in Effingham County is set to grow exponentially in the near future, thanks to Hyundai’s plans to locate its new metaplant plant in the neighborhood and a push from state and local leaders to make it happen.

The Savannah Morning News reports Rincon has a new city manager and a plan to balance the growth they know is coming with the small-town feel people move there for in the first place. More:

Three new subdivisions and expansion in four are just the beginning. Residents will see housing units on the outer bands as the city grows from the Hyundai plant. In addition, millions of acres of land have been annexed for industrial growth.

Rincon is on the brink of a population explosion.

- Savannah Morning News

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AS ALWAYS, Jolt readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com and greg.bluestein@ajc.com.