ATLANTA — Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and a pastor who has swiftly become a veteran of high-octane political campaigns, won reelection Tuesday over former football star Herschel Walker, the Associated Press projected.
Warnock’s victory, his fourth win in either a runoff or a general election in less than two years, will deliver Democrats a 51st vote in the Senate, giving them breathing room as they face two years of divided government, while leaving Republicans to reckon with one final failure in an underwhelming midterm.
The campaign was the last, most expensive, and perhaps highest-profile race of the midterms, and the result will shape the workings of the Senate, burnish the battleground status of this Southern state, and intensify the intraparty frustration with former president Donald Trump, who handpicked the famous but troubled Walker to run against Warnock only to watch his choice fall short in yet another swing state.
By the end of the night, unofficial results had Warnock with a little more than 51 percent of total votes.
When the call came in around 10:30 p.m., a packed Atlanta hotel ballroom where Warnock based his election night party exploded in exultation, dancing to DJ Khaled’s “All I do is win.” About an hour later, Warnock took the stage to joyful chants of “six more years!”
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and to God be the glory,” Warnock said. “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.”
The senior pastor of the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, he spoke of his roots, calling himself “a child of Georgia, of its promise, of the brutality and possibility,” and said that his mother, who once picked cotton on a farm, was in the crowd. Now Warnock, the first Black Senator from Georgia, had been elected to a full term.
“We stand here tonight on broad shoulders, our ballot is a blood-stained ballot,” he said, dipping into the history of civil rights. “Now it is on us, the latest generation of Americans and of Georgians, to keep building that bridge, to keep walking that long walk, pushing the nation towards our ideals.”
A few minutes before Warnock’s speech, surrounded by reminders of his past glories at the College Football Hall of Fame, Walker took the stage and acknowledged his loss in front of a subdued crowd, calling his Senate run “the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole entire life.“
“I got a chance to meet all you and hear what you guys feel about this country,” said Walker. And although he spent part of the election sowing doubt in the electoral system, he took a different approach as he finished his short speech. “Let me say, stay together, continue to believe in our elected officials. Always, always cast your vote.”
Warnock’s win will widen Democrats’ control of the Senate, blunting the power of mercurial moderates like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — and cement Warnock’s status as a swing-state fighter. And it vindicated his campaign strategy of blending the energy of his base of minority and young voters with disenchanted independents and even moderate Republicans who could not stomach his opponent.
From the start, Walker’s campaign was dogged by scandal, accusations of abuse, and odd gaffes. Accusations that he previously abused a spouse and paid for girlfriends’ abortions, despite his stated opposition to the practice, repeatedly rattled the public’s confidence in the first-time candidate.
Then there were Walker’s rambling campaign speeches that veered into dubious territory — about werewolves and vampires or “bad air” drifting from China — that provided Democrats with ample fodder for political ads. He made few obvious attempts to appeal to independent voters, and even his Republican allies grew frustrated when he left the campaign trail for five days around Thanksgiving. When he did campaign, he focused on red meat for his base, complaining about pronouns and transgender children playing sports, rather than trying to reach the middle.
“I think Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst candidates in our party’s history,” said Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, a Georgia Republican, earlier this week.
The race drew astronomical levels of spending, with more than $380 million pouring in before the end of November, largely in favor of Warnock. The Democrat’s fund-raising lead was so significant that his ads dominated the airwaves and sparked worries among Walker’s allies that the Republican’s message was drowned out.
On Monday, Walker closed his campaign by spending much of the day shaking hands with voters in North Georgia, visiting conservative strongholds he had dominated in the general election. Those were also areas where the popular GOP governor, Brian Kemp, had outperformed him, suggesting there were still more Republican votes to be had.
Overall, there were 200,000 people who backed Kemp but not Walker during the midterm in November, and that pool of voters became a key focus for both campaigns. Warnock sought to burnish his appeal to Republicans and independents by talking up his bipartisan appeal, frequently mentioning, for example, a bill he wrote that capped the price of insulin.
Among those crucial split-ticket voters was Davis Woodruff, a 24-year-old who does metalwork for an artist and lives in the tony Buckhead area of Atlanta. Woodruff backed Kemp and Warnock in November and went to the polls on Tuesday evening to vote for Warnock one more time.
“One of the candidates does not seem like a very good person,” Woodruff said, referring to Walker.
Warnock’s win is an illustration of the gains Georgia Democrats have made while Trump has dominated the GOP: two Senate seats, one of which they won twice, and a narrow victory for President Biden in 2020. But there are still questions about how well the party would do if it didn’t have Trump as a foil, because of the success Republicans such as Kemp, who kept Trump at a distance, had during the same cycle.
Walker’s allies hoped enough Republicans would grit their teeth and vote Republican despite his checkered history. In Buckhead, one woman said she had cast a vote for Walker just to stop Democrats from gaining an extra seat — but she felt “sick” and “sad” all the same. She declined to give her name.
In Duluth, another suburb near Norcross, Michael Cobb, 62, a poker dealer and an independent voter, said GOP positions on crime and the economy motivated his vote for Walker.
“I don’t think he’s the greatest candidate, but by the same token, Warnock is very, very far left and not the most trustworthy,” Cobb said.
To win, Warnock needed to turn out the Democrats’ coalition of Black voters, young voters, and suburban women turned off by the erosion of abortion rights — and the latter was frequently mentioned by women voters during interviews at the polls on Tuesday.
“People assume I’m going to vote for Herschel because I’m a big UGA fan,” said Michelle Wilson, 52, a real estate agent from Norcross who said she tends to vote for Democrats. But in fact, she was voting for Warnock because of his position on reproductive rights.
In Buckhead, Hartley Loomis, an 18-year-old who was voting in her first midterm, had cast a vote for Warnock. “The overturning of Roe vs. Wade was really important,” she said. She had tried to convince her mother, Kathy, to do the same, but Kathy had voted for Walker instead, calling the economy her biggest concern.
Charlei-Jane Manago, 28, had more luck with her mother, Louet Aidara. Manago convinced her mother to shake off her election fatigue and drove her to the polls; both women voted for Warnock.
“It is our civic duty, because we’re Black women. Our lives and our uteruses depend on it,” Manago said, calling Walker — whose name she refused to utter — an “imbecile.”
And Shayna Bailey, 31, a recent transplant from New York, said she cast a vote for Warnock because she wanted to vote for a candidate who supports gun control. She was nervous about the results, she said, and determined to do her part.
“The first election was so close, clearly it matters,” said Bailey, who expressed one more hope after a grueling and cash-soaked election season, regardless of who won.
“I’m hoping to stop getting phone calls and texts,” she said.