ATLANTA (AP) — Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a Georgia runoff on Tuesday, securing Democrats an outright majority in the Senate for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s term and helping set up an overwhelming midterm cycle for to crown the GOP in the GOP last big vote of the year.
With Warnock’s second runoff win in as many years, Democrats will have a 51-49 Senate majority and win a seat from the current 50-50 split with John Fetterman’s win in Pennsylvania. However, there will be divided government, with Republicans narrowly flipping House control.
In last month’s election, Warnock led Walker by 37,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast, but missed the 50 percent hurdle needed to avoid a runoff. Walker, a football legend who first rose to fame at the University of Georgia and later in the NFL in the 1980s, has been unable to get over a series of damaging allegations, including claims that he paid for the abortions of two former girlfriends.
The Democratic victory in Georgia cements the state’s place as a battleground in the Deep South, two years after Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won the 2021 runoff that gave the party control of the Senate, just months after Biden was elected first Democratic presidential nominee to win Georgia in 30 years. Voters returned Warnock to the Senate in the same cycle in which they reelected Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by a comfortable margin and elected an all-GOP list of statewide constitutional officials.
“I’m going to work with everyone 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 stance and its need to support GOP dependents Independents to win over at least some moderate Republicans in a mid-election year.
Warnock, 53, coupled that argument with an emphasis on his personal values, bolstered by his status as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
Walker’s defeat ends this year’s GOP struggles for victory with flawed candidates out of Trump’s form, a blow to the former president as he crafts his third bid for the White House.
The new Democrats’ absolute majority in the Senate means the party no longer has to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Republicans or rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to break so many ties.
About 1.9 million runoff votes were cast through the mail and during early voting as the state headed for a robust election day, with state officials estimating an additional 1.4 million votes cast — slightly up from the November midterm and 2020 election.
Early voting and mail-in voting did not reach the same levels as in previous years, and it was likely that the total number of votes cast would be lower than in the 2021 Senate runoff. Voting rights groups point to changes in state lawmakers after the 2020 election , which reduced the deadline for runoff elections from nine to four weeks, the main reason for the decline in early and mail-in voting.
Election officials reported some problems processing early votes and tabulating ballots cast Tuesday, but there were some delays. In the southern Georgian district of Lowndes, two poll workers were involved in a car accident on their way to the district electoral office with memory cards from a polling station’s voting machines. A Lowndes official said a member of the local Elections Committee went to the scene of the accident to retrieve the memory cards so table making could proceed.
Walker benefited from near-unmatched publicity from his football career during the campaign but was dogged by questions about his suitability for the post and allegations of hypocrisy.
Walker, a multi-millionaire businessman, puffed his philanthropy and business accomplishments, including claims that his company employed hundreds of people and had tens of millions of dollars in sales annually, although records say he had eight employees and averaged about 1.5 made millions of dollars a year. He has hinted that he worked as a law enforcement officer and graduated from college, although he did neither.
He has been accused by two former girlfriends of sponsoring and paying for their abortions, despite supporting an outright national ban on the procedure during the campaign. He dismissed both women’s claims.
He also had to admit during the election campaign that he fathered three illegitimate children, about whom he had never spoken publicly before. The mother of one of those children told The Daily Beast that Walker hadn’t seen his young son since January 2016 and was facing a child support trial – in direct conflict with Walker’s years of criticism of absentee fathers and his demands for black men. particularly to play an active role in their children’s lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He has never disputed these peculiarities, writing about his violent tendencies in his 2008 memoir attributing the behavior to mental illness.
As a candidate, he has sometimes mangled political discussions by blaming the climate crisis on China’s “bad air” overtaking the “good air” from the United States, and arguing that diabetics could manage their health through “eating right,” a practice , which is not sufficient for insulin-dependent diabetics.
On Tuesday, Atlanta voter Tom Callaway praised the strength of the Georgia Republican Party and said he supported Kemp in the first round of voting. But he said he voted for Warnock because he didn’t think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator”.
“I didn’t think he had a statement of what he really believed in or a campaign that made sense,” Callaway said.
Walker, meanwhile, attempted to portray Warnock as a yes man for Biden. He was sometimes particularly personal in his offensive, accusing Warnock of “on his knees and begging” in the White House — a stark charge for a black challenger to take action against a black senator over his relationship with a white president.
“My opponent is not a serious person,” Warnock said during the runoff. “But the election is very serious. Don’t confuse these two things.”
Warnock promoted his achievements in the Senate, campaigning for a provision he sponsored to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients. He welcomed infrastructure and maternal health care deals made with Republican senators, mentioning those fellow GOPs more than Biden or other Washington Democrats.
Warnock distanced himself from Biden, whose approval ratings have lagged as inflation remains high. After the general election, Biden pledged to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Warnock bypassed the president and instead chose to fight with former President Barack Obama in the days leading up to the runoff.
Walker, meanwhile, avoided campaigning with Trump until the final day of the campaign, when the pair held a conference call with supporters on Monday.
Walker joins failed Senate nominees Dr. Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz, Arizona’s Blake Masters, Nevada’s Adam Laxalt and New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc as Trump loyalists who ended up losing races Republicans once thought they would — or at least could — win.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy and Ron Harris contributed to this report.