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Raphael Warnock Defeats Herschel Walker in Nail-Biter Georgia Senate Runoff

Democratic Incumbent’s victory gives Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority

And that’s a wrap on the 2022 midterms. On Tuesday, incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker in the Georgia runoff election, notching a victory that gives his party a 51-49 seat majority in the U.S. Senate.

With more than 95% of votes counted, Warnock won with 50.7%, a razor thin victory that nevertheless keeps the seat in Democratic hands for the next 6 years. Overall, according to CNN, close to 3.3 million votes were cast in the runoff election — or a little less than half of the state’s 7,007,154 ‘active’ voters.

“I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to God be the glory for the great things that God has done. After a hard fought campaign. Or should I say campaigns, it is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy: The people have spoken. I often say that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world that we desire for ourselves and for your children. Voting is faith put into action,” Warnock said in his victory speech.

Unlike his political patron, Donald Trump, Walker appeared to have accepted the results of the election. In a speech after the race was called, he didn’t admit he had lost, nor did he congratulate Warnock for his victory. But he did say “I want you to believe in America and believe in our constitution,” and he urged his supporters to “continue to believe in this country.”

The victory voids the power-sharing arrangement with Senate Republicans that has been in effect since 2021, giving Democrats the majority on all Senate committees. Among other things, this is likely to speed up the approval of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees; it might also give Democrats other options when dealing with Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have spent the last 2 years obstinately blocking various Democratic priorities for reasons that have generally not been in alignment.

The signs of Warnock’s victory were apparent almost immediately after polls closed in Georgia, as it became clear the former preacher had a significant advantage over the ex-football player in early voting. According to CNN, Warnock received a commanding 64.1% of votes cast before election day, leaving Walker with a dismal 35.9%. 

Those numbers of course tightened considerably as returns from election day voting came in, and for much of the night Walker was in the lead. But in the end it turned out to be another example of the red mirage effect — when early returns, which tend to come from day of, in-person ballots in smaller population rural counties, produce temporary leads for Republican candidates that disappear once ballots from larger population centers and from mail-in or early voting, which tend to favor Democratic candidates, are counted.

Walker needed a stronger than normal turnout on Tuesday, one that, much like the ‘red wave’ promised by Republicans prior to the midterms, didn’t materialize. Still it turned out to be an extremely tight race, showing that while Georgia has become a genuine battleground state, it has a long way to go before it could be called blue.

Even so, Warnock’s slim margin of victory suggests growing Democratic strength in Georgia, as before 2021, Georgia hadn’t been represented by two Democratic senators since 2003. Further, between 2003 and 2020, Democratic candidates were crushed in every senate race. Similarly, between 1964 and 2020, Democratic presidential candidates won Georgia just three times — 1976, 1980 and 1992 — and two of those elections involved popular former Governor Jimmy Carter.

Warnock’s win caps an unusual election cycle that defied historical trends. Typically, the first midterm after a presidential election sees the President’s party punished badly by voters. But while Republicans did manage to barely take control of the House of Representatives, they have just a 7-seat majority in the House, one of the smallest ever for a majority party. Meanwhile, Democrats actually increased their majority in the Senate.

Postmortems and recriminations will of course be produced for weeks and months to come, but factors that surely impacted the election include the so-called Trump Affect. Republicans lost dozens of crucial races all over the country, particularly when they involved candidates backed by Donald Trump. And Walker was essentially hand-picked by the disgraced ex-president to run in the Georgia Republican Party.

But Walker’s problems weren’t just his association with an unpopular politician connected to political violence. He was also revealed during the campaign to be a serial liar, telling dozens of provable falsehoods about everything from his past to his secret children to the abortions he paid for, while insisting he is anti-abortion.

Despite the fact that control of the Senate had already been secured by Democrats with victories in Arizona and Nevada on election day, interest in the Georgia recount was sky high. That’s in part because a Walker victory would not only deny Democrats something to brag about, but would also provide a small, if vestigial, validation of Donald Trump’s political influence.

As such, the runoff became the most expensive election of the 2022 cycle, with a combined $412.6 million spent by both candidates and an array of special interest groups.

And it’s likely to only get more expensive in the future. Georgia is one of just two states that require runoffs in a general election when no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote; all other states give the victory to whoever wins the most votes.

And Georgia is increasingly competitive. Alongside already razor thin margins between Democrats and Republicans, in 2020 and 2022 libertarian candidates on the ballot siphoned off just enough votes to deny either of the major party Senate candidates the crucial 50%. Barring any significant changes in the state, it’s likely runoff elections will be the norm.