In a major win for Democrats and President Joe Biden, Sen. Raphael Warnock held onto his Senate seat Tuesday night, besting GOP challenger Herschel Walker in one of the most expensive and closely watched races of the midterm election season.
With 98% of the vote in, the Democratic incumbent had 50.9% of the vote, compared to 49.1% for Walker, an ally and friend of former President Donald Trump whose lack of any political experience or oratory skill was replaced by nostalgia over his storied football career and his pledge to vote with Republicans in Congress. Major networks called the race for Warnock about 10:30 p.m.
“It is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy: The people have spoken,” Warnock told a cheering crowd at his Georgia campaign headquarters.
“A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children,” Warnock, a pastor, told the crowd.”
Voting is faith put into action, and, Georgia, you have been praying with your lips and your legs, with your hands and your feet, your heads and your hearts. You have put in the hard work. And here we are, standing together,” Warnock added.
The crowd yelled, “Six more years! Six more years!” – a relieved acknowledgement that Warnock, who has been through four elections in four years to take and keep the seat he first won in a special election, would be able to do his job without fighting to keep it for a while.
The hard-fought win, the result of a runoff mandated when neither candidate earned 50% of the vote in the November general election, means Democrats will expand their Senate majority, holding 51 seats (a total that includes two independents who caucus with the Democrats) to the GOP’s 49.
Warnock’s victory is also a huge win for Biden, who becomes just the third Democratic president in 88 years to see his party pick up seats in the midterms. The previous presidents who enjoyed that advantage in pushing their legislative agendas were Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
The 51-seat majority also gives some breathing room for Democrats, whose previous, 50-50 functional majority left them just one senatorial death or retirement away from losing control of the Senate.
Walker was an unusual candidate whose past scandals – including charges that he held a gun to his ex-wife’s head and allegations from two former girlfriends that the declared anti-abortion candidate had pressured them to have abortions – didn’t stop him from gaining grassroots Republican support as well as endorsements from establishment GOP lawmakers.
Walker also stunned political pundits when he went on bizarre rants during his campaign, including going on about whether he would prefer to be a werewolf or a vampire. But conservatives said it didn’t matter as much as Walker’s reliable vote in the Senate, where Republicans are eager to thwart Biden’s agenda as the president weighs a run for reelection.
Walker’s loss is also a loss for Trump, a friend and ally who encouraged him to run for the seat. Trump’s endorsed candidates lost key races this fall, including governorships in Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, and Senate seats representing Arizona, New Hampshire, Alaska, Nevada, Pennsylvania and now Georgia.
Warnock’s victory also solidifies Georgia as a genuine battleground state, albeit one that is still majority Republican. Biden won the state in 2020 – the first time a Democrat has won the state since 1992 – and both Senate seats are now held by Democrats.
Walker made few gains since the November general election, expanding his percentage lead slightly in some very red counties. He also appeared to have turned out Republican voters in places where a strong GOP showing was critical.
But Walker’s improvements did not compare with the pickups Warnock made in large Democratic counties, particularly those in and around Atlanta. Warnock expanded his percentage lead in counties such as Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb. Warnock nearly flipped blue another county south of Atlanta – Fayette – indicating that the Atlanta suburbs are getting bluer as the state’s demographics change.
Despite the fact that party control of the Senate was not at stake, Georgians came out in droves to vote in the runoff. Walker supporters were eager to have another conservative vote in the chamber, while Warnock backers cast Walker, who behaved erratically on the campaign trail and fielded allegations of domestic abuse and lying about his business and academic records, as unfit to serve in a chamber that confirms judicial nominees and OKs international treaties.
The Peach State broke records daily in early and mail-in voting. More than 1.8 million Georgians voted early, in person or by mail – far fewer than the 3.1 million Georgians who voted in the January 2021 runoffs. But the number was nonetheless remarkable because voters had just a single-week opportunity to vote in person, compared to two-plus weeks in 2021.
Further, new voting rules in Georgia made vote-by-mail more restrictive, reducing the time to request a mail ballot, shrinking the operating hours for drop boxes and lowering the number of drop boxes available in the largely Democratic Atlanta metro area.
Critics complained that the sped-up runoff schedule and new voting rules were suppressing the vote. But Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger denied that charge and noted that Georgians managed to get out and vote anyway. On Friday, the last day of early voting, Georgians cast 350,000 votes – 40% more than any single early voting day in Georgia history, the secretary of state’s office said.
Early voting appeared to benefit Warnock. While it’s impossible to know which candidates early voters preferred, the turnout included increased percentages of female, Black and urban voters – all factions that tend to favor Democrats, according to the voter analysis group TargetSmart.
Turnout among 18- to 29-year-old voters, another group that has heavily favored Democrats in the midterm elections, was lower compared to the 2021 runoff and the November election, TargetSmart found. However, a closer examination of the numbers shows that the decline came from a reduced turnout among young Republican voters and that turnout among 18- and 19-year-old Democrats was higher than in either of the earlier elections.
That put Walker under added pressure to get his supporters to the polls on Tuesday. Exit polls from the November election indicated that some Republicans cast ballots for Gov. Brian Kemp, a popular Republican who easily won reelection, but either stayed away from the Senate contest or voted for Warnock.
Since a Walker win would no longer secure a GOP Senate majority, Walker had an added hurdle in getting Republicans to polling places.
Kemp – who rebuffed former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s election – did not appear with Walker ahead of the November elections, separating himself from the Senate candidate who denied the election results and aligned himself closely with Trump. Before the runoff, however, Kemp, safely reelected, did appear with Warnock.
Trump, whose endorsed candidates in key races lost in November, was not invited to appear with Walker.
Christian Walker, one of Herschel Walker’s children who said his father had abandoned and mistreated the family, reveled in his father’s loss.
“Don’t beat women, hold guns to peoples heads, fund abortions then pretend your pro-life, stalk cheerleaders, leave your multiple minor children alone to chase more fame, lie, lie, lie, say stupid crap, and make a fool of your family,” the younger Walker wrote on Twitter. “And then maybe you can win a senate seat.”