Georgians selected incumbent Republicans for top state races, but were deadlocked about who should serve as U.S. senator, suggesting the possibility of a split-ticket victory in the 2022 elections between Republicans and Democrats and underscoring the Peach State’s identity as a battleground in these hyperpartisan times.

With the nation suffering from historic-high inflation rates, the economy was on the mind of many voters. But so was character and personal integrity. These issues helped push the Senate race pitting incumbent Rev. Raphael Warnock against Herschel Walker, his Trump-backed Republican challenger, to a runoff, while Republican Gov. Brian Kemp handily defeated his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.

By noon Wednesday the Democratic senator from Savannah was leading Walker by 49.4% to 48.5%, but the Secretary of State’s office, which organizes elections, said the race would be decided in a runoff next month, as it was impossible for either candidate to clear the 50% threshold needed to win outright.

Gov. Brian Kemp, on the otherhand, had accumulated 53.5% of the unofficial vote tally in his race. Abrams conceded shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday night.

In Coastal Georgia’s congressional race, Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, the incumbent congressman endorsed by former President Donald Trump, defeated Wade Herring by a commanding lead in a district where solidly Republican counties outperformed two majority minority areas that routinely vote blue.

Herring, a political newcomer from Savannah, said his outrage over Carter’s support for Trump’s attempt to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results motivated him to run against the man whom for years he had sat across from in church.

Rather than a large victory party Tuesday night, Carter appeared at Fish Tales restaurant at the Fort MacAllister Marina in Richmond Hill to a small crowd of supporters. His campaign Twitter feed, which has been dormant for most of the week, published a brief thanks to the First District voters about a half hour after the Associated Press called the race in his favor.

Herring, a corporate lawyer with the venerable HunterMacLean firm, held an emotional gathering for his supporters dubbed the Wade Brigade. 

“This election is about the future of our country, and the outcome tonight does not change that,” Herring said in a concession speech. “Tomorrow morning we still have work to do.”

Georgia’s election results came after robust turnouts — unofficial results showed 56.5% of registered voters cast ballots — and an election process that was smooth and error-free.

In Georgia’s 159 counties no major technical glitches were reported across Election Day. By Tuesday night, no legal challenges were brewing — a dramatic change from 2020, when former President Donald Trump waged weeks of court battles against Georgia’s voting system, the state’s vote count and its poll workers.

In Coastal Georgia, voters in five counties who voted Tuesday spoke of economic issues, health care and reproductive rights as motivating factors to come to the polls. Many also say 2022 as a chance to rebuke Trump’s legacy of stoking outrage and hyper-partisanship and re-align the Republican Party with its roots as a group touting economic conservatism and public service.

Candidates brought steady outlook

Guy Randolph, president of the Skidaway Island Republican Club, considers Brian Kemp to be that leader for Georgia. He said his vote wasn’t swayed by national political concerns, but by how Kemp has handled the state economy.

“He opened the state up early (during the pandemic). As far as I’m concerned, the state is well run,” Randolph said, citing the new Hyundai plant that is scheduled to be built in Bryan County as a testament to Kemp’s leadership. In addition, Randolph said, Kemp is a stand-up kind of person. “I think he’s an honest hardworking guy,” he said. “He ushered us through the pandemic as well as any governor.”

Warnock supporters in Coastal Georgia praised him for much the same reasons. They credit him as a man of integrity and a deft legislator who, in his last two years as a senator, helped pass a cap on insulin prices, a major healthcare victory for the estimated 15% of adult Georgians with diabetes.

“He sees us. He understands what our struggles are, and he delivers,” said Bernice Singleton, an older Black woman who drives school buses in Glynn County. “Herschel has never done anything for nobody except himself.”

Over the summer, as his race tightened, Warnock honed in on economic issues on the campaign trail and pushed his bipartisan credentials. He often invoked former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson as a model, as well as his deep religious beliefs. 

Yet Warnock’s electoral momentum also appears to stem from lingering divides in Georgia’s Republican Party, as well as his opponent’s close affiliation with Trump and his multiple personal scandals which came to light during the campaign. 

Familiarity drew votes

Crossover votes, the winning formula that brought Warnock victory in the runoff election in January 2021, also helped him Tuesday. With 88% of precincts reporting across the state after midnight, Warnock had received 1.92 million votes to Walker’s 1.89 million, according to unofficial vote totals. The third-party candidate, Libertarian Chase Oliver, received more than 80,000 votes, or 2% of the total ballots cast — a margin that could have put either of the main candidates over the finish line.

In contrast, Kemp received more than 2.05 million votes, according to unofficial results, 

The significant gap between Kemp’s and Walker’s vote totals occurred throughout the state. In Chatham County, for example, Walker received 39% of the vote, while Kemp received 44%, according to unofficial results. 

Rep. Carter, meanwhile, appeared to benefit from longstanding name recognition in a district where he has served for eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives and, as state senator before that. Georgia’s First Congressional District as well has been redrawn as a safe Republican majority, despite also including Democratic Chatham and Liberty counties.

Herring raised over $1 million dollars to try to defeat Carter, who is among the wealthiest members of the House of Representatives. But unofficial vote totals showed that Herring did not garner significantly different vote totals than lesser-funded Democrats in years past. Turnout numbers were also lower in Coastal Georgia than they were in 2018, the last gubernatorial election, as in 2022.

Carter, in his re-election, deftly straddled the two opposing wings of Georgia’s Republican Party — the side led by Kemp, and the side which supports Trump.

Kemp refused to bend to Trump’s will to try to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia that showed President Joe Biden the winner, a stance that earned the governor Trump’s lasting ire. The former president and key allies within the state GOP are facing subpoenas and possible criminal charges for the roles they allegedly played in helping Trump’s effort to overturn that election.

Carter held few public campaign events this year or town hall meetings, and employed no dedicated campaign staff. Instead, he relied heavily on routine trips to Coastal Georgia as part of his congressional duties as a key platform to meet privately with constituents. 

That was in contrast to Herring, who had built a well-managed and well-financed campaign, largely from local supporters who shared his outrage over Carter’s decision to back Trump’s position, despite zero evidence, that the 2020 election was fraudulent. 

That didn’t stop Carter from leaning into the popularity of Kemp, despite Trump’s antipathy for the governor. Carter appeared at Kemp campaign events in Savannah and got photos of himself next to the governor at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Hyundai electric car manufacturing plant in Bryan County last month. At other venues, he proudly described himself as Trump’s No. 1 surrogate in Coastal Georgia.

Walker, however, failed to build the same trust across Republican lines.

Kemp and Walker ran separate campaigns and never held joint events. Walker, who was asked by Trump to run for Senate, rarely invoked his mentor on the campaign trail and reportedly asked him not to campaign on the former football star’s behalf.

As county after county reported their results Tuesday evening, Walker’s tally was consistently lower than Kemp by 4 percentage points. For example, in Effingham County, a bright red pocket in Coastal Georgia, unofficial results showed Kemp beating Abrams 77%-22%, while Walker had 72% of the vote. Carter, meanwhile, garnered 76% of the county ballots.

Incumbents appear to hang on

In other state races, the House District 164 seat that serves Richmond Hill and south Savannah had incumbent Ron Stephens, a Republican, beating Marcus Thompson, by 58%% to 41.2%, according to unofficial results.

In the State Senate District 1 race, Republican incumbent Ben Watson was beating Jay Jones by 61.4% to 38.7% with 67% of precincts reporting.

State Senate District 2, which was up for grabs after veteran lawmaker Lester Jackson did not run for re-election, had Democrat Derrick Mallow winning handily with nearly 72% of the vote over challenger Clinton Young, a Republican, according to unofficial vote tallies.

Many other state congressional seats in Coastal Georgia were races where candidates ran opposed.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...