At a campaign rally in Savannah last Friday, Raphael Warnock repeated what he’d said in speech after speech in the waning days of his grueling runoff campaign against Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock rallies with supporters in Norcross ahead of the runoff election on Dec. 6. Credit: Riley Bunch/GPB News

Savannah’s native son invoked the tireless efforts of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and other champions of the civil rights movement, exhorting his supporters to follow their example, set aside their exhaustion, and step up efforts to get their families and friends to the polls.

“Let’s get this thing done!” Warnock shouted.

Tuesday evening, he and his supporters did. 

Raphael Warnock is returning to the U.S. Senate.

Propelled by a large turnout that sustained his lead from early voting, Warnock defeated football legend Herschel Walker by 51.28% to 48.72%, or just under 100,000 votes as of 12:54 a.m., capping the most expensive contest of this year’s midterm elections and one of the costliest in Georgia’s history.

When he won a special election two years ago, the 53-year-old pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church became the first Black Georgian to represent in the U.S. Senate and the first Black Democrat to be elected to the upper chamber of U.S. Congress by a former state of the Confederacy.

Now, with the country more politically divided than at any other time since the Civil War, Warnock will have a full, six-year term to put to the test his vision of a compassionate politics that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, flows from the “better angels of our nature,” not the worst.

‘A proud son of Savannah, Georgia’

Addressing a victory party at a hotel ballroom in Atlanta, Warnock described himself as a “proud son of Savannah, Georgia,” and paid tribute to his parents, his children, and his supporters.

“At the end after a hard-fought campaign, or should I say campaigns, it is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever uttered in a democracy, ‘the people have spoken,’” Warnock said.

In terms befitting a cleric, he went on to thank those who helped “get it done.” 

“I often say that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children,” he said. 

“Voting is faith put into action and Georgia you have been praying with your lips and your legs. with your hands and your feet, your heads, and your hearts. You have put in the hard work, and here we are standing together.”

Although exit polling and detailed voting data will provide a clearer, more exhaustive picture of how, exactly, Warnock prevailed over Walker, evidence of that hard work was evident up and down the coast. 

Warnock gained voters in the second round of voting. In Camden, Glynn and Chatham counties, he gained approximately 2% over his November total. In Liberty County, that margin was 3%.

Enthusiasm was high for Warnock in Pooler, the hometown of First District congressman, Republican Buddy Carter. The West Chatham Baptist Church and Southside Fire Training Center processed 30% more voters on Tuesday than they did on Election Day.

A poll watcher described the steady stream of voters as mostly younger, Black, and Hispanic professionals, while older white voters were largely absent.

Much needed balm

For Georgia Democrats and “purple-state” promoters, Warnock’s victory was much-needed balm for their dismal performance in the midterm elections, in which Republican candidates swept all statewide seats, notably Stacey Abrams’s seven-and-a-half-point defeat at the hands of incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp.

Partisan affiliation aside, Warnock’s win also could be viewed as a victory for incumbency more than anything else — in the midterm voting, every statewide and federal office holder up for reelection won.

Still, the win gives Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate, allowing the party’s lawmakers to hold a majority in every Senate committee and weakening the leverage that Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have held over the Democrats’ agenda.

It’s also a testament to the infrastructure that Democrats, starting with Abrams, have built to mount campaigns in many parts of Georgia where in recent years, Republicans mostly have dominated the political scene.

The victory didn’t come cheap.

The two sides spent at least $400 million in campaign and outside funding, according to OpenSecrets, which works out to about $51 for every registered voter in the state. Some $79 million alone was spent on TV ads during the shortened, four-week runoff campaign.

‘One of the worst candidates in our party’s history’

In a five-minute speech to his supporters gathered at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Walker acknowledged his defeat and expressed no regrets about his run for the U.S. Senate, calling it the “best thing” he’d ever done.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker gives a brief concession speech Dec. 6, 2022, after losing to incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Credit: Riley Bunch/GPBNews

 “I’ll never stop fighting for Georgia. We’re all winners,” he said in a plea for unity. “Continue to believe in our elected officials.”

Still, for Walker and Georgia Republicans, the loss is no doubt bitter, with Warnock now having defeated Gov. Brian Kemp’s choice for the job in 2021 and Donald Trump’s choice for the job this year.

Walker now becomes the fourth, Trump-endorsed Senate candidate in a swing state to lose in the midterm elections, further tarnishing the former president’s reputation as a kingmaker and his quest for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024.

As the state GOP officials ponder Walker’s defeat, the words that Doug Duncan, Georgia’s sitting Republican lieutenant governor and prominent Trump critic, uttered in an interview with CBS are likely to echo in their ears: 

“Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst candidates in our party’s history.” That scathing assessment came five days before today’s voting.

Translating gridiron fame into political success

From the start of the race, Walker sought to ride Trump’s endorsement to victory.

The former president recruited the former Heisman Trophy winner (and his ex-United States Football League employee) to run against Warnock, betting that in a state mad about football and in a country bedazzled by celebrity and reinvention, Walker’s gridiron fame would translate easily into political and electoral success.

Georgia Republicans agreed, handing Walker 68.2% of the vote in a landslide victory over five other candidates in the Republican primary in May. The runner-up, former agricultural commissioner Gary Black, drew 13.4% of the vote.

Never mind that for younger voters in a general election, gridiron fame might not count for much, Walker having played his last collegiate game in 1982, his last professional one, three years before the turn of the century.

And never mind the warnings from senior members of the state GOP during the primary that Walker’s history of domestic violence, bad business deals, and violent encounters with police made him unelectable in November.

‘I’m not that smart and he’s that preacher’

In lining up four-square behind Trump, Walker adopted a three-prong strategy of limiting his media exposure mostly to conservative news outlets and friendly audiences, lowering expectations, and casting Warnock as too sophisticated and too high and mighty for ordinary Georgians.

“I’m not that smart and he’s that preacher,” he told reporters in Savannah in mid-October, before his one and only debate with Warnock. “I’m gonna do my best.”

To counteract Walker’s “aw shucks” strategy, the Warnock campaign sought to portray their candidate as a different kind of politician, rhetorically more at home in the arcing cadences of the Baptist church than Trumpian smack-talking.

Republicans across the country sought to tie their Democratic opponents to what they described as the “failed policies of the Biden administration,” and Warnock and his surrogates in Georgia were no different.

“Terrible,” said Rep. Carter, Coastal Georgia’s representative in Congress, when describing Warnock at a meeting of local Republicans on Skidaway Island in April. “I know he’s from Savannah, but still he is awful,” added Carter. “God forbid” he gets a six-year term in the Senate.

Shackling Warnock to the Biden administration’s circumstances or painting him as a “liberal socialist” out of step with “real” Georgians never quite worked, though, partly because the senator positioned himself as a legislator who could even work with conservative flame-throwers if it meant the state’s interests could be advanced.

‘He loves his country’

Despite a Republican sweep of statewide offices in the midterm elections, Walker failed in the runoff to ease the disquiet in the ranks of his own party that he was the not-ready-for-primetime candidate.

Kemp’s coattails proved short. He waited until the runoff to campaign for Walker, and then did so only once in person.

Again and again, he appeared in over his head in discussions about policy. His unease painfully evident, he was left with little to commend his candidacy except for the fact he wasn’t a Democrat and, as Marolyn Overton, a prominent Skidaway Island conservative put it, “He loves his country.”

For more than 1.6 million voters, that was enough. For those he needed to prevail in the runoff, it wasn’t.

Finally, the value of his political patron’s endorsement turned into a liability, so much so that Walker advisers were reported to be relieved that Trump stayed away from Georgia in the waning days of the runoff, worried that his presence on Georgian soil would mobilize more Democrats than Republicans to the polls.

Events far away from Georgia

Still, for all of Walker’s deficiencies, however, he may well have lost the runoff due to events far away from Georgia.

The first occurred in late June, when U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. It thrust Walker’s hardline anti-abortion stance to center stage in the campaign — a glaring light that only got brighter three months later, when two women came forward alleging that he had urged them to get abortions and in one case, paid for the procedure, actions that made him appear hypocritical, bullying, and feckless.

The second occurred on Nov. 12, some 2,000 miles away in Clark County, Nevada, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto was declared the winner of her closely contested U.S. Senate race over another Trump-backed candidate, Adam Laxalt, and Republican hopes of flipping control of the U.S. Senate ended.

On the strength of the argument that the outcome of the Georgia Senate race was key to winning control of the U.S. Senate, Walker had come within a whisker of victory in the first round of voting, losing by less than one percent of the vote.

Masto’s victory ensured that Democrats would maintain control of the U.S. Senate. It also deprived those Republicans who had reluctantly voted for him on Nov. 8 the Walker’s campaign best argument for overlooking their candidate’s gaffes and inexperience and voting for him anyway.

More than 200,000 Republicans who had voted for Kemp in the first round of voting had already refused to vote for Walker. With Masto’s win, Walker was an emperor wearing no clothes, his flaws all the more conspicuous for voters, even Republican ones, to behold.

The drip-drip-drip of serious scandals and side-splitting slip-ups, including questions about his residency status and musings about vampires and werewolves continued right up to the final days of the campaign.

A racial reckoning

Besides coming to terms with Trump’s role in Walker’s losing Senate race, the state GOP also faces a racial reckoning. The contest featured two candidates who represented sharply different, but equally well trodden, avenues of success for Black men in America: the pulpit and the football field.

But in putting forward Walker as its Senate candidate, claims by the state GOP to be a big-tent party, open to Blacks and other people of color, were tarnished, Black voters said. In a survey conducted for CNN in the last week of November, a whopping 96% of those Black voters polled said they would cast their ballots for Warnock.

That the GOP would put forward a candidate so lacking in aptitude for public office was embarrassing and insulting, said Dexter Newby, 49, a substance abuse counselor in Hinesville.

“It’s offensive that this is how some people, some other races, view the Black vote — that we’re so easily manipulated into voting just because of somebody’s skin color or their celebrity status — that just because Walker was a star football player and from Georgia that other Blacks will vote for him,” said Newby, a 20-year Army veteran.

Newby said he cast his vote for Warnock in the runoff because the “state of Georgia will be better in his hands than Herschel Walker’s.”

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...