Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won re-election in Tuesday’s runoff in Georgia, narrowly defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and increasing Democrats’ control of the Senate after a high-profile and bitterly-fought campaign.
The Associated Press had to wait until nearly all votes were counted before calling the race, which saw both Walker and Warnock take narrow leads multiple times throughout the night. Warnock ultimately prevailed by about 2.5 per cent of the vote.
The result was another bitter pill to swallow for Republicans nationally, who saw several other star candidates lose in last month’s midterm elections despite predictions of a “red wave” that would rebuke Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda. Walker underperformed compared to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in November, while the party once again dominated statewide offices.
It also serves as the latest failed test of Donald Trump’s continued political and ideological stranglehold over the Republican Party. The former president endorsed Walker, a football legend and political newcomer, and even urged him to enter the race despite his lack of experience and a troubled past. Republicans have blamed Trump-endorsed candidates for the party’s midterm performance, a blow for Trump as he mounts another presidential campaign.
The runoff in Georgia was sparked after neither Warnock or Walker earned more than 50 per cent of the vote in the Nov. 8 general election, sending Warnock and Walker to a head-to-head battle.
It was a case of deja vu for Warnock, who entered the Senate by winning a runoff in January 2021 — one day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He and fellow Sen. Jon Ossoff became the first Democratic senators to represent Georgia in 20 years, and secured Democratic control of the Senate for first time since 2015.
With Warnock’s second runoff victory in as many years, Democrats will have a 51-49 Senate majority, gaining a seat from the current 50-50 split with John Fetterman’s victory in Pennsylvania. There will be divided government, however, with Republicans having narrowly flipped House control.
The race in Georgia was dominated by the issue of what Warnock called “character and competence.” Walker, who first gained fame at the University of Georgia and later in the NFL in the 1980s, was unable to overcome a bevy of damaging allegations.
Two women accused Walker of encouraging them to get abortions and paying for them, despite his hardline pro-life stance on the campaign trail. The women have provided documentation showing they were in romantic relationships with Walker at the time, and that he signed cards and cheques for them. Walker has vehemently denied the allegations.
Walker also faced multiple allegations of domestic violence, lying about his academic achievements and business history, exaggerating his experience as an honorary sheriff’s deputy, and even that he actually lives in Texas instead of Georgia.
Those allegations and others frequently derailed the campaign away from policy discussions. When they did come up, Walker still struggled, attributing the climate crisis to China’s “bad air” overtaking “good air” from the United States and arguing that diabetics could manage their health by “eating right,” a practice that isn’t enough for insulin-dependent diabetic patients.
Warnock, as he did in 2020, emphasised his personal values, buoyed by his status as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
Walker sought to portray his opponent as a yes-man to Biden, who remains unpopular in the state amid high inflation. Biden notably did not campaign with Warnock, who opted instead for multiple appearances with former president Barack Obama.
Democrats’ new outright majority in the Senate means the party will no longer have to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Republicans and won’t have to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to break as many tie votes. Committees will also have clear Democratic majorities, making it easier to approve legislation and judicial nominees.
A record 1.9 million runoff votes were cast by mail and during early voting, while the state was on track for a robust Election Day, with state officials estimating an additional 1.4 million votes cast — slightly more than in the November midterm and the 2020 election.
—With files from the Associated Press