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Democratic Sen. Warnock defeats Republican Walker in Georgia runoff

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock successfully fended off a challenge from Republican football star Herschel Walker Tuesday, NBC News projects.

ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican football star Herschel Walker on Tuesday in Georgia’s Senate runoff election, NBC News projects, handing President Joe Biden and his party a key win.

Warnock’s victory will give Democrats an outright majority in the Senate after two years under a 50-50 divide, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

The win cements Biden's unexpected midterm success, allowing his party to grow the majority in the Senate.

The outcome is also another blow to Donald Trump, who backed Walker, making him the final in a series of candidates the former president supported this year who failed to win competitive races.

Senate Republicans had been hoping to get a headstart on the 2024 election, when the electoral map heavily favors the GOP. But Walker was dogged by scandals, a more than 2-to-1 spending disadvantage and lack of confidence in both the candidate and his campaign from some GOP officials.

Republicans typically wait to vote on Election Day, but their voters did not turn out on a damp and drizzly Tuesday in the numbers that Walker needed to overcome the advantage Warnock had banked during the early vote window.

"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 told supporters.

Biden said he called Warnock Tuesday night to congratulate him. "Tonight Georgia voters stood up for our democracy, rejected Ultra MAGAism, and most importantly: sent a good man back to the Senate," Biden tweeted. "Here’s to six more years."

In an interview with NBC News, Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks credited the victory in part to driving the contrast between candidates — and continuing to appeal to independent and Republican-leaning voters who had reservations about Walker.

“When it turned out to be Herschel Walker, we immediately looked at the landscape and saw an opportunity to say that we can make this race about ‘the Reverend’ versus ‘the running back.’ And if we did that, we could control our own destiny within this cycle,” Fulks said.

“There could have been other campaign operatives or another campaign that could have said, ‘OK, Herschel Walker has all this baggage, so we’re just going to run to the left and just try to turn out as many of our voters and just let Republicans eat their own,’” Fulks added. “We didn’t do that.”

Fulks said one of the biggest challenges was to motivate voters to turn out on an unusual Dec. 6 Election Day.

“We had to make our own energy organic,” he said.

The runoff election was triggered by state law because neither candidate won an outright majority in the November election.

Democrats’ 51st vote means they can rip up the power-sharing arrangement they struck with Senate Republicans and secure a clear majority of votes on committees. They’ll also have one vote to spare on matters like confirming executive branch nominees and judges.

The extra seat could also be critical to Democrats’ chances of retaining the majority in 2024, when some of the party's most vulnerable incumbent senators are up for re-election.

Democrats say, Walker's defeat is a sign that Americans are rejecting Trumpism as the former president looks to regain the presidency.

“This election marks the first midterm since 1934 where the party in power successfully defended every incumbent Senate seat," said J.B. Poersch, the president of Democrats' Senate Majority PAC, which says it spent $85.7 million in Georgia this year. "Voters in Georgia and across the country have sent a message loud and clear by firmly rejecting GOP extremism and re-electing a Democratic Senate majority that will continue delivering for the American people."

The outcome, along with last month's defeat of former Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, also showed the limits of celebrity. Walker, who was backed by former President Donald Trump, was a star running back for the University of Georgia and the NFL, and was a member of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team in 1992.

Georgia has been a reliably red state until just two years ago, when it voted for President Joe Biden and then elected Warnock and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in twin runoff elections.

Walker has warned Republicans that they need to turn out to stop national Democrats from gaining more power. “If you don’t vote, you’re going to get more of Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity Monday night.

A drizzly and chilly Tuesday did little to dampen the motivated voters of Atlanta.

Duane Cochenour, a 61-year-old attorney, cast a vote in his midtown Atlanta precinct for Walker. But he said he’s “not crazy about” the Republican and was reluctant to support him.

“I’m not a Donald Trump fan at all. I really wish he would go away. That’s my biggest negative in voting for Walker — I didn’t want to be perceived as a vote in favor of a Trump candidate,” Cochenour said, reflecting the mood that helped turn Georgia blue two years ago. “But I felt like the importance of taking the Senate back outweighed that.”

Matthew Pinder, 24, said he voted for Warnock because he's "reasonable" and "the other candidate isn’t."

Sahil Kapur reported from Atlanta, and Alex Seitz-Wald from Washington.