Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Herschel Walker to win reelection in Georgia Senate runoff race

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ATLANTA — Democratic Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock has won the state’s runoff election, according to the Associated Press, defeating Republican Herschel Walker in one of the fiercest campaigns of 2022 and giving Democrats a 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate.

“Thank you, Georgia. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and to God be the glory,” Warnock said in his victory speech just before midnight on Tuesday. “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.”

Warnock is the state’s first Black senator and senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Originally elected last year in a special election to replace retired GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, he has now been chosen to serve a full six-year term in the Senate. The Georgia residents in attendance at Warnock’s victory party Tuesday said they could not be more thrilled about the results.

"We're fighting for a democracy,” Erica Ferguson of Marietta, Ga., who attended the event with her college-age son, told Yahoo News. “I have a son, and I want to leave this world a better place for him, and Rev. Warnock is the only answer."

Atlanta resident Athena Soule, who has volunteered with the Warnock campaign since January 2020, said she’s been “excited and happy” ever since the pastor announced he would run for office more than two years ago.

"I feel like Sen. Warnock is dedicated to the well-being of Americans, and I trust that he's going to be working hard for us,” Soule said.

Supporters at an election night party for Warnock.
Supporters at an election night party for Warnock at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The win follows a long and intense battle that went four weeks into overtime after neither candidate won 50% of the vote in last month’s midterm election. In the end, more than 3.5 million people voted in the runoff, or roughly 1 in 2 registered voters. By comparison, in November a record 3.9 million ballots were cast.

In his concession speech late Tuesday, Walker said running for Senate was the “best thing” he’d done in his entire life.

“We’ve had a tough race,” he said. “You never stop dreaming and believing in America. … This is much bigger than Herschel Walker.”

Most polls had the two candidates in a dead heat for the majority of the race, despite a flurry of reports alleging that Walker, a staunch anti-abortion advocate, paid for a former girlfriend to undergo the procedure in 2009. Then another woman claimed he made her get an abortion during a years-long affair in the early 1990s. In both instances, he denied he had ever paid for a woman to get an abortion.

Walker’s campaign had tried to turn the election into a referendum on President Biden. But Walker has been hamstrung by a series of scandals and bizarre gaffes, including a recent digression on vampires and werewolves, as well as his close ties to former President Donald Trump.

Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to supporters.
Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to supporters in Kennesaw, Ga., on Nov. 7. (Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

The race was, from the onset, one of the most high-profile in the country. Warnock often painted Walker as unfit and unqualified to represent the state, taking jabs at his opponent’s intelligence, rigid anti-abortion stance and long list of abuse allegations.

“This race is about competence, who is ready and who is fit,” Warnock said at a rally in Atlanta last week featuring former President Barack Obama. “This is about right and wrong.”

Walker, meanwhile, claimed Warnock was running a “nasty, dishonest campaign.”

Born in 1969, Warnock grew up in the Kayton Homes public housing complex in Savannah, Ga. He went on to attend Morehouse College, an HBCU located in Atlanta, before earning his PhD from Union Theological Seminary.

In 2005 he was appointed to the role of senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once served as an associate minister. He continues to preach there to this day.

“The influences [Warnock] got at Morehouse are the same influences that came to bear on Martin Luther King,” Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. congressman, told New York magazine.

Warnock, wearing a mask that reads Vote, is accompanied by former Atlanta mayor and U.S. congressman Andrew Young as he casts his vote in the 2021 runoff election.
Warnock is accompanied by former Atlanta mayor and U.S. congressman Andrew Young as he casts his vote in the 2021 runoff election. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The race marked the first time that two Black candidates from opposing parties had competed for a Senate seat in Georgia. Walker ran as a right-wing Republican closely aligned with Trump, while Warnock portrayed himself as a moderate who was broadly supportive of Biden’s agenda.

“The only reason [Warnock] got in office is because he was in Dr. King’s church,” Walker said at a campaign stop last week. “He’s been fooling us, trying to take us down that elevator. I’m not falling for it.”

Throughout the campaign, Warnock stressed his belief in abortion rights. “A patient’s room is too small for the patient, her doctor and the United States government,” he said in October at a Savannah rally.

Walker’s stance on abortion was more fluid. Early in the campaign he stated that he opposed the procedure with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Months later, he said he agreed with a proposal that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks at the federal level. Then, during his one debate against Warnock, Walker said he supports Georgia's 2019 law that outlaws most abortions around six weeks but contains exceptions.

Warnock speaks to supporters in Norcross, Ga.
Warnock speaks to supporters in Norcross, Ga., on Tuesday. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Warnock also had a voting record to defend, having supported key pieces of Democratic legislation such as the American Rescue Plan, which Republicans blame for jump-starting inflation. Walker spent much of his time on the campaign trail slamming Warnock and other Democrats for the nation’s economic troubles.

And both candidates talked about rising crime rates, with Warnock supporting bipartisan gun control legislation that passed the Senate. He has also called for an end to cash bail, specifically for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, and co-sponsored a piece of legislation that would provide $250 million to support smaller law enforcement agencies around the country. It passed the Senate unanimously in August.

Walker slammed Democratic policies and efforts to defund police as the cause of rising crime, but he was vague when discussing his solutions. He was likewise evasive when it came to health care, while Warnock often discussed several initiatives he helped push through in Congress, including capping the cost of insulin at $35 for Georgians with diabetes.

Warnock’s win expands the Democrats’ Senate majority to 51 seats, giving party leaders more room to maneuver against the Republican opposition. But some Georgia voters told Yahoo News that their choice was informed more by their impressions of the two men vying for the seat.

"We need to make it clear who we support,” a Black woman, who asked to stay anonymous but identified as a Democrat, said Tuesday after voting at a South Fulton, Ga., polling station. “That's why it was so important for me to come out and vote again. Our voices need to be heard, and we need to support the right candidate. The only way we can do that is if we vote."

Voters at a recreation center in Norcross, Ga., wait to cast their ballots.
Voters in Norcross, Ga., wait to cast their ballots on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

While waiting in a two-hour line to vote at Fulton County’s Ponce De Leon Library last week, Atlanta resident Rex Patton called Walker’s entire campaign “pathetic.”

“The man is illiterate and only running because he’s famous in Georgia,” Patton said. “Warnock, on the other hand, can speak in complete sentences, and he’s a preacher, he has good values. Plus, he actually lives in Georgia,” Patton added, referring to Walker’s longtime residency in Texas.


Cover thumbnail photo: Cheney Orr/Reuters