(AP) — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a Georgia runoff election Tuesday, ensuring Democrats an outright majority in the Senate for the rest of President Joe Biden’s term and helping cap an underwhelming midterm cycle for the GOP in the last major vote of the year.
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.
In last month’s election, Warnock led Walker by 37,000 votes out of almost 4 million cast, but fell short of the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Walker, a football legend 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, including claims that he paid for two former girlfriends’ abortions.
Democrats’ Georgia victory solidifies the state’s place as a Deep South battleground two years after Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff won 2021 runoffs that gave the party Senate control just months after Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 30 years to win Georgia. Voters returned Warnock to the Senate in the same cycle they reelected Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by a comfortable margin and chose an all-GOP slate of statewide constitutional officers.
“I’ll work with anyone to get things done for the people of Georgia,” Warnock, the state’s first Black senator, said throughout his campaign, a nod to the state’s historically conservative lean and his need to win over GOP-leaning independents and at least some moderate Republicans in a midterm election year.
Warnock, 53, paired that argument with an emphasis on 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’s defeat bookends the GOP’s struggles this year to win with flawed candidates cast from Trump’s mold, a blow to the former president as he builds his third White House bid.
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.
About 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.
Early and mail voting did not reach the same levels as years past, and it was likely the total number of votes cast would be less than the 2021 Senate runoff election. Voting rights groups point to changes made by state lawmakers after the 2020 election that shortened the period for runoffs, from nine weeks to four, as a major reason for the decline in early and mail voting.
Elections officials reported few problems processing early votes and tabulating ballots cast Tuesday, but there were some delays. In south Georgia’s Lowndes County, two poll workers were in a car accident on the way to the county elections office with the memory cards from one precinct’s polling machines. A Lowndes official said a member of the local elections board went to the accident site to retrieve the memory cards so tabulations could continue.
Walker benefited during the campaign from nearly unmatched name recognition from his football career, yet was dogged by questions about his fitness for office and allegations of hypocrisy.
A multimillionaire businessman, Walker inflated his philanthropic activities and business achievements, including claiming that his company employed hundreds of people and grossed tens of millions of dollars in sales annually, even though records indicate he had eight employees and averaged about $1.5 million a year. He has suggested that he’s worked as a law enforcement officer and graduated college, though he has done neither.
He was accused by two former girlfriends of encouraging and paying for their abortions, despite supporting an outright national ban on the procedure during the campaign. He denied both women’s claims.
He was also forced to acknowledge during the campaign that he had fathered three children out of wedlock whom he had never before spoken about publicly. The mother of one of those children told The Daily Beast that Walker had not seen his young son since January 2016 and had to be taken to court for child support — in direct conflict with Walker’s years spent criticizing absentee fathers and his calls for Black men, in particular, to play an active role in their kids’ lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He has never denied those specifics and wrote of his violent tendencies in a 2008 memoir that attributed the behavior to mental illness.
As a candidate, he sometimes mangled policy discussions, 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.
On Tuesday, Atlanta voter Tom Callaway praised the Republican Party’s strength in Georgia and said he’d supported Kemp in the opening round of voting. But he said he cast his ballot for Warnock because he didn’t think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator.”
“I didn’t believe he had a statement of what he really believed in or had a campaign that made sense,” Callaway said.
Walker, meanwhile, sought to portray Warnock as a yes-man for Biden. He sometimes made the attack in especially personal terms, accusing Warnock of “being on his knees, begging” at the White House — a searing charge for a Black challenger to level against a Black senator about his relationship with a white president.
“My opponent is not a serious person,” Warnock said during the runoff campaign. “But the election is very serious. Don’t get those two things confused.”
Warnock promoted his Senate accomplishments, touting a provision he sponsored to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients. He hailed deals on infrastructure and maternal health care forged with Republican senators, mentioning those GOP colleagues more than he did Biden or other Washington Democrats.
Warnock distanced himself from Biden, whose approval ratings have lagged as inflation remains high. After the general election, Biden promised to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Bypassing the president, Warnock decided instead to campaign with former President Barack Obama in the days before the runoff election.
Walker, meanwhile, avoided campaigning with Trump until the campaign’s final day, when the pair conducted a conference call Monday with supporters.
Walker joins failed Senate nominees Dr. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, Blake Masters of Arizona, Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire as Trump loyalists who ultimately lost races that Republicans once thought they would — or at least could — win.