Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to take in Raphael Warnock’s win on December 6th
“I AM GEORGIA,” proclaimed Raphael Warnock, as the Democratic Senator declared victory in the state’s run-off election on December 6th. That is not a sentiment that could be claimed by Herschel Walker, his defeated Republican opponent in a seat the GOP had held for most of the 21st century.
It was the fifth time in two years that Georgians had been asked to place their cross beside the name of Mr Warnock, a Baptist preacher. “I know you might be tired—I get tired too,” he said at a rally on Sunday evening in the New Freedom Christian Centre in East Athens. “But can you imagine how tired you are going to be if Herschel Walker is your senator for the next six years?” Mr Warnock had first won his seat after a run-off in a special election in 2020. Then, as now, he narrowly beat Mr Walker in the midterm election last month. But with a third-party candidate also in the race Mr Warnock failed to secure a majority. Under Georgia election law, that forced the run-off, in which the Democrat secured 51% of the vote.
More than 1.86m Georgians had voted early, breaking single-day records despite waits of more than two hours at some polling stations. That early vote appeared to favour Mr Warnock.
The run-off was the first Senate contest in Georgia’s history between two black candidates, and both men grew up poor in what they have described as large, loving families. They could not otherwise offer a starker choice. Mr Warnock came up through the classroom and the church. He earned a PhD in philosophy and is the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King junior held the pulpit. Mr Walker, now a businessman, rose via the playing fields, helping deliver a national football championship to the University of Georgia in 1980 and setting records as a fullback there and in the National Football League.
The race was the most expensive of 2022—some $380m was spent, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan organisation that studies money in politics. Hundreds of fieldworkers poured into Georgia to turn out the vote for each candidate. Barack Obama appeared on Mr Warnock’s behalf, as did the musicians Stevie Wonder and Dave Matthews; several Republican senators have campaigned with Mr Walker.
On the eve of election day former President Donald Trump held a “tele-rally” for Mr Walker. But though he recruited Mr Walker to run, Mr Trump had not campaigned in Georgia for him since the primary in May. Instead, Mr Walker’s most important ally in the run-off was the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, whom Mr Trump reviled as disloyal for refusing to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Like other Georgia Republicans who stood up to Mr Trump, Mr Kemp was easily re-elected in November. The same could not be said for those candidates who received the former president’s blessing.
Mr Walker, who is 60, campaigned on crime, inflation and cultural questions such as his opposition to “men in women’s sports”, a reference to trans athletes. But he kept a light schedule and largely ducked questions from all but supportive press outlets, leaving some of his positions unclear. Mr Warnock, 53, meanwhile claimed a record of bipartisanship and stressed his support for extending a child tax credit and capping insulin prices, as well as his commitment to protecting abortion rights. The Republican had said in the past he favours banning abortion without exception, though he later tried to soften that position. Two women have accused him of pressuring them to have abortions. He denies their claims.
Mr Warnock’s win means that Democrats will be able to confirm judges and other appointees more speedily, and they will be slightly better placed to retain their Senate majority in two years’ time. However, because of their surprising success elsewhere in the midterms, Democrats were already assured of control of the Senate regardless of the outcome in Georgia. This somewhat lowered the national stakes of the run-off and focused more attention on the qualities of the candidates themselves, resulting in brutal attacks on the character and competence of each man.
Mr Walker is remembered as a hero by many Georgians, and he tried to turn Mr Warnock’s eloquence against him, suggesting he is an elitist and a fraud. But Mr Walker’s behaviour and bizarre campaign comments have supplied Mr Warnock’s ad men with richer material. One of the Democrat’s closing commercials showed Mr Walker musing about why he no longer wanted to be a vampire (werewolves can kill them) and why America’s anti-pollution efforts were futile (China’s “bad air” would come here). A diverse group of just-plain-folks is shown reacting to each comment. “It is embarrassing,” says one man, seemingly pained. “Let’s call it what it is: it is embarrassing.”
Lending heft to that attack, Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, a Republican, had predicted to CBS News that Mr Walker “will probably go down as one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history”. He told CNN he waited an hour to vote but then could not cast a ballot for either candidate. Georgians didn’t seem so torn. ■