ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock wrapped up his “one more time” tour with a victory Tuesday in the runoff, defeating Republican rival Herschel Walker to secure a six-year term.
“Against unspeakable odds, here we stand together,” he said.
Here are four takeaways from the Georgia runoff:
Warnock's star rises
The “senator reverend,” as he calls himself, keeps winning.
Warnock has been on the ballot five times in a roughly two-year span — one Democratic primary, two general elections and two runoffs — and finished first each time. Along the way, he has dispensed with three Republican contenders (before Walker, he faced former Sen. Kelly Loeffler and former Rep. Doug Collins in a 2020 special election).
It’s a remarkable feat for a political newcomer in two different political environments, and even more so for the first Black person elected senator from Georgia, once a bastion of the Confederacy.
Warnock spent the last few years in permanent campaign mode, his fate long appearing uncertain in this purple state during a challenging landscape for Democrats. That had minimized any chatter about his future prospects. But this electoral success is sure to elevate his star, possibly into the echelons of presidential or vice-presidential contenders.
Asked if Warnock is a future White House candidate, his campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, told NBC News on Tuesday: “I don’t know. I think Sen. Warnock is very tired and I think he’s been campaigning for a long time. I can’t wait to see what he does, but I know he can’t wait to see what he can do when he has a full six-year term to represent the people of Georgia.”
Democrats expand their Senate power
Warnock’s victory gives Democrats their 51st seat — an outright majority that ends their reliance on Vice President Kamala Harris for tie-breaking votes.
In practice, that means smoother sailing on executive nominees and judges, without Republicans having the ability to force deadlocked committee votes and make the Senate jump through extra procedural hoops. It also means more power for Democrats to issue subpoenas without Republican buy-in, setting up a contrast to the GOP-controlled House’s plans to aggressively investigate the Biden administration. And it means that no single member, like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., can make or break the party’s agenda.
"Reverend Warnock’s well-earned win is not just a victory for Georgia, but also for democracy — as the last brick in our firewall against extremist MAGA Republican policies that threaten the very essence of our democracy," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Suburbs and ticket-splitters hold for Democrats
The 2022 result in Georgia indicates that suburban voters who left the Republican Party during the rise of former President Donald Trump are in no rush to return.
Warnock once again dominated in the booming and vote-rich Atlanta metropolitan area, matching or expanding his margins from the general election. Walker improved his margins in some rural counties, particularly in northern Georgia, but it wasn't enough.
Warnock's top advisers said they focused heavily on swing voters, and their strategy paid off.
“Creating a permission structure for soft Republicans, swing voters and independents to support Rev. Warnock was key to our strategy, and why we highlighted things like working with Ted Cruz or standing up for peanut farmers,” Warnock's deputy campaign manager, Rachel Petri, said in an interview. “This was more than about Democrat versus Republican, it was trying to make this a decision between two specific candidates.”
Fulks said the GOP misread the landscape: “Republicans quite frankly thought that the national environment would be enough to win in all of these states and put forth candidates that had no answers to any of the problems facing these states and the voters that live there. And I think voters saw through that.”
In a lengthy Twitter thread Tuesday evening, Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Republicans need an “honest evaluation of party’s problems. Not taking points that rile up loud voices.”
Trumpism (still) alienates some swing voters
There is evidence that 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump’s brand of politics continues to alienate an important slice of swing voters, particularly in the Atlanta suburbs, which have trended from red to blue. Walker has been tied to Trump as a longtime friend who won an early Senate endorsement from the former president, enabling the political newcomer to clear the GOP primary field.
NBC News exit polls from Election Day last month found that 1 in 4 Georgia voters said their vote was about opposing Trump, and 94% of them voted for Warnock over Walker.
Walker finished second on Election Day and lost Tuesday’s runoff. By contrast, two of the most high-profile Republicans in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, won their races on Election Day, topping 50% and avoiding a runoff. Some of Walker’s biggest deficits relative to Kemp’s vote share came in populous Atlanta-area counties such as Cobb and Fulton. Walker held his own in the vast rural stretches of the state where the “MAGA” brand is popular, but it wasn’t enough.
Among other differences, one was that Kemp and Raffensperger were not associated with Trump in the minds of voters — both rejected his fabricated claims about a stolen 2020 election.