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Warnock defeats Walker in Georgia’s Senate runoff

Dec. 6, 2022 Updated Tue., Dec. 6, 2022 at 9:19 p.m.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), center, sits down for a talk with Killer Mike, left, and D-Nice at the SWAG Shop barbershop in Atlanta, on Monday.  (New York Times)
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), center, sits down for a talk with Killer Mike, left, and D-Nice at the SWAG Shop barbershop in Atlanta, on Monday. (New York Times)
Jonathan Weisman and Maya King New York Times

ATLANTA — Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, in a runoff election Tuesday that capped a grueling and costly campaign, secured a 51-seat Democratic majority and gave the first Black senator from Georgia a full six-year term.

Warnock’s victory, called by the Associated Press, ended a marathon midterm election cycle in which Democrats defied history, as they limited the loss of House seats that typically greets the party that holds the White House and now gain a seat in the Senate.

Throughout one of the most expensive Senate races in American history, Warnock used the cadences and lofty rhetoric he honed as the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church to ask Georgia voters to rise above the acrimony and division of Donald Trump’s politics.

The defeat of Walker, who was hand-picked by Trump, culminated a disastrous year for the former president, who set himself up as a Republican kingmaker only to watch his Senate candidates in Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire — as well as his picks for governor in Arizona, Michigan and Georgia — go on to defeat in primaries or in last month’s general election.

Walker’s loss will almost certainly lead to soul-searching for a Republican Party that must decide heading into the 2024 election how firmly to tether itself to a former president who has now absorbed powerful political blows in three successive campaign cycles.

The Georgia result also holds a bold message about race in the rising New South.

Warnock was the first Black person from Georgia to be elected to the Senate when he won a 2021 runoff. Republicans chose another Black candidate to try to deny him a full term — a former football star with no political experience and little ideological depth — elevating the role of race and identity in a contest where the Republican candidate denied the existence of racism and the Democrat spoke of painful injustices that have yet to be remedied.

Now, with six years ahead of him in the chamber, Warnock will remain part of a stunningly small group: Of the more than 2,000 people who have served in the U.S. Senate, only 11 have been Black. Of the Senate’s 100 current members, three are Black: Warnock; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

In the general election in November, Warnock, 53, finished ahead of Walker by about 37,000 votes. But neither candidate cleared the 50% threshold needed to win, sending the race into a runoff. Under Georgia’s new election law, the runoff period was shortened to four weeks from nine, giving both campaigns little time to regroup, adjust their strategies and mobilize voters to return to the polls.

Warnock and his Democratic allies immediately funneled millions of dollars into the race, outspending Walker by a more than 2-to-1 margin in less than a month. By the final week of the runoff campaign, Warnock had topped $53 million on the airwaves while Republicans had spent $24 million. That was just a fraction of the $400 million spent in total in the race by candidate committees and outside groups during the midterm election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a group that tracks money in politics.

Warnock won with overwhelming support from Black voters, who represent one-third of Georgia’s electorate and are integral to its Democratic base. Black voters in Georgia expressed disappointment, even anger, on Tuesday at what they saw as an effort to manipulate them to support a flawed Republican candidate whom they believed had been selected because of his race by political figures who would dictate his actions.

“Herschel Walker is a product of Georgia politics,” Aisha Horan, 47, said after casting her ballot Tuesday for Warnock at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta. “Someone looked around and said, ‘We need to counter Warnock, especially for those Black folks. Let’s just stack the deck against them a little bit more.’ ”

But Warnock also won a key slice of support from moderates in the state, a group he paid extra attention to in the runoff campaign. Luke Maran, 23, an independent voter and mechanical engineering student at Georgia Tech, said he agreed with conservative economic principles of efficiency and low taxation, and had his qualms about the extremes of liberal social policies. But ultimately, he said, he voted for Warnock as the more qualified candidate.

Republicans struggled to articulate a message to galvanize their voters after Democrats secured Senate control during the general election. And while Walker, 60, used his fame to vault to the top of the Republican candidate field, he made a series of missteps and contended with a near-constant flow of damaging headlines about his personal life and business career.

He did not dispute his ex-wife’s previously aired accusations of domestic violence, which included Walker’s having threatened her life. But he was also accused, for the first time, of fathering children he had not previously disclosed, exaggerating and lying about his business prowess and urging women he was in relationships with to have abortions. His campaign denied all of these claims.

Those scandals and a series of nonsensical verbal diatribes — on the relative merits of werewolves and vampires, China’s “bad air” and a bull on the wrong side of a fence eyeing several cows — appeared to have a profound effect on his standing, especially with Black men, some of whom saw Walker as the white power structure’s mistaken idea of a candidate who would appeal to them.

“It was embarrassing, and I heard other Black men in my circle talk about their embarrassment,” Rachman Holdman, a 48-year-old information technology manager in Sandy Springs, said after voting for Warnock on Tuesday.

An array of Republican figures visited the state regularly to bolster Walker’s campaign during the runoff period, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida. But in the final days, Walker held few events — and he disappeared from the campaign trail altogether during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, baffling his GOP allies who saw it as a crucial window. By election day, he appeared to be unable to encourage a sizable portion of moderate voters, particularly those who had supported Gov. Brian Kemp in the general election, to turn back out for him.

Kemp had to walk a fine line in the runoff, preserving his political capital in a contest that was trending away from the Republicans while appearing to lend enough support to Walker to maintain his reputation as a devoted party leader.

Complicating the issue for Kemp was Trump. The former president had urged a former Republican senator, David Perdue, to challenge the governor in the primary in May. Trump wanted revenge for Kemp’s refusal to back his attempt to overturn his defeat in Georgia by Joe Biden in 2020.

Kemp easily defeated Perdue in the spring, only to be left propping up Trump’s Senate candidate in the fall.

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