Warnock defeats Walker, giving Democrats 51-49 majority in Senate

Credit: Jason Getz /AJC

Credit: Jason Getz /AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock fended off a challenge from Republican Herschel Walker to win a full six-year term that broadens the Democratic majority in the chamber after a turbulent runoff campaign that sharpened partisan divides in one of the nation’s most politically competitive states.

Warnock’s victory Tuesday was a rare bright spot for Democrats in Georgia after a midterm that ended in triumph for every other statewide Republican candidate, and his win prevented an outright reversal just two years after Democrats swept the U.S. Senate runoffs and helped Joe Biden win the White House.

The $401 million race was the nation’s most expensive. The victory gives Democrats 51 seats in the Senate, meaning they can claim a majority on committees and exert more influence without having to depend exclusively on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.

In a subdued concession speech Tuesday night, Walker made no mention of Warnock but urged his supporters to “believe in our elected officials.”

“There’s no excuses in life, and I am not going to make any excuses now because we put up one heck of a fight,” Walker said.

Warnock prevailed with a strategy that mobilized both reliably liberal Democrats and middle-of-the-road voters, including many in the latter bloc who split their ticket in the first round by also voting for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Throughout the campaign, he stressed his efforts to reach across the aisle, and he did it again in his victory speech, saying he would continue to work on issues such criminal justice and lowering the costs of prescription drugs.

“I want all of Georgia to know, whether you voted for me or not, I am going to keep working for you,” Warnock said.

The senator staved off Walker’s attempts to turn the race into a referendum on Biden, whose low approval ratings complicated his campaign.

Instead, Warnock framed the race as contrast of competence and character. Walker’s history of violence, personal baggage and patterns of lies and exaggerations that frustrated even steadfast Republican allies made him unfit for the Senate, Warnock said.

The Democrat was helped in the final stretch by inexplicable blunders from his rival. The Republican disappeared from the campaign trail for five days as early voting started over the Thanksgiving holiday, and he drifted into attacks on his former football coach and off-script discussions about horror movie villains.

The gaffe-prone Republican refused to talk to reporters covering his campaign for the last two months of the race, and his staff regularly ignored queries about his policy stances. In the final days, his aides put a buffer at his stops so he could avoid questions shouted by the media.

A GOP push to ban Saturday early voting backfired, triggering a surge to the polls that helped Warnock build an edge before election day. And Democrats maintained a huge fundraising advantage, outspending Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 clip in the four-week runoff.

Warnock topped Walker thanks to support that grew in 146 of Georgia’s 159 counties since the November midterm, including both rural Republican-leaning areas and Democratic bastions in metro areas.

He also held a huge fundraising advantage over Walker, amassing more than $167 million this election cycle, nearly three times more than Walker collected.

Democrats were also aided by tight victories in Arizona and Nevada that clinched the party’s majority in the Senate — and deprived his challenger of an argument to skeptical Republicans that a vote for Walker was a vote for GOP control of the Senate.

Even so, the stakes of the runoff were monumental. Democrats sought the 51st seat to give the party wiggle room if a more moderate member broke ranks, along with leverage to advance legislation and Biden’s nominees. A loss would have put Republicans on the cusp of taking over.

A historic race

Walker, an iconic Georgia football player recruited to run by former President Donald Trump, was drawn into a runoff with Warnock after neither received a majority of the vote in the Nov. 8 election. Warnock finished ahead of Walker by about 38,000 ballots in that contest.

Their rivalry stretched back to the days shortly after Warnock narrowly defeated then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a January 2021 runoff, part of a Democratic sweep with Jon Ossoff that flipped control of the chamber and allowed Biden to pursue a more aggressive agenda.

Fresh off a special election victory to fill the final two years of the late Johnny Isakson’s tenure, Warnock pivoted to a campaign for a full six years. It became clear he could face Walker when Trump predicted Walker would be an “unstoppable” candidate, scaring off many other GOP figures with the early endorsement.

When Walker steamrolled his lesser-known GOP rivals in the May primary, it set up a star-studded race that pitted a sports legend against the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It also made history, marking the first time Georgia voters nominated two Black candidates for the U.S. Senate. The color of their skin was one of the only similarities between the rivals, who had sharply diverging policy stances, personal styles and campaign strategies.

Warnock cast a deciding vote for major Biden administration initiatives, including a federal climate and health care bill that included his provision to cap insulin prices for those on Medicare.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

But he was far more likely to highlight his disagreements with the president, such as his lobbying effort to persuade Biden to endorse debt relief for college students and his opposition to the White House’s plans to close a military installation on Georgia’s coast.

Asked whether he wanted Biden to run for a second term — or even if he wanted the president to campaign for him in Georgia — Warnock would regularly dismiss the query as “pundit” talk that made no difference to everyday voters.

Instead, he talked as much about his work across party lines with the likes of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, sometimes to the shock of left-leaning voters at his rallies. It was a calculated pitch to win swing voters — roughly 200,000 of them who backed Kemp but not Walker in the November election.

Walker made no such appeal to the middle. His rallies featured the same stump speech favorites that energized a conservative crowd: anecdotes about his playing days, blistering critiques of transgender athletes and attacks on the use of gender pronouns.

“Democrats want to talk about pronouns?” was a favorite applause line at rallies. “I’ll tell you what, Raphael Warnock’s new pronoun is ‘former senator.’ ”

Throughout the campaign, Walker provided almost no details about what he would do in the Senate nor did he stake out positions on key issues.

Instead, he made sweeping attacks on wasteful government spending, pledged to support police and blamed inflation and other economic woes on Warnock and the Democrats.

Warnock said his opponent didn’t understand the issues and didn’t care enough to learn.

“You actually have to know stuff to do this job,” Warnock repeated at campaign stops.

‘I’ve been waiting’

But policy disagreements often took a backseat to Walker’s personal baggage, which emerged in a barrage of news stories involving his businesses, charity work and claims that he worked in law enforcement.

And past incidents of violence against women, including his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, were featured in campaign ads and news coverage throughout the campaign.

The coverage escalated after two women accused Walker of pressuring them to get abortions, allegations he denied but nonetheless became a proof point for his critics that he was a hypocrite for having called for a total ban on the procedure. His adult son responded by calling for him to “wear a condom.”

His personal issues alienated even senior Republicans. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the state’s No. 2 official, waited in line for an hour at an early voting site before leaving his ballot blank in protest of both candidates.

“Like many conservatives across Georgia, I’ve been waiting for Herschel Walker to give me a reason to support him,” he said. “Regrettably, he hasn’t.”

Republicans tried to shift the spotlight to Warnock’s background, highlighting his ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife, who claimed he ran over her foot with his vehicle during a March 2020 dispute. He denied that allegation, and authorities who responded to her 911 call found no evidence of injury.

During the runoff campaign, high-profile surrogates flocked to Georgia to boost each of the rivals. Cruz and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott stumped across Georgia with Walker, while former President Barack Obama headlined a rally with Warnock.

Kemp, who had kept his distance from Walker during the runup to the general election, stepped in to lend resources and his own cachet to Walker’s campaign. He vouched for him in ads and at rallies and directed his army of campaign workers to knock on doors for Walker.

Notably absent from the trail were the nation’s dominant political figures. Trump, who encouraged Walker to run, steered clear of an in-person rally in Georgia as polls showed he would do more harm than good. The former president held a “tele-rally with Walker the night before the election in a last ditch push to get the GOP base out to vote.

Biden limited his help for Warnock to a tweet, traveling instead to Massachusetts during the final days of the race.

Warnock’s victory cements his position as one of the nation’s leading Democrats, and a crowd of supporters chanted “six more years” as he took the stage to celebrate his triumph.

“After a hard-fought campaign, or should I say campaigns, it is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever uttered in a democracy: The people have spoken.”