Democratic US Senator Raphael Warnock has defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a Georgia run-off election, solidifying his party’s control of the Senate for the rest of President Joe Biden’s term.
With Warnock’s victory on Tuesday, Democrats will have a 51-49 Senate majority, gaining a seat from the current 50-50 split following John Fetterman’s victory in Pennsylvania last month.
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Democrats had ensured control of the chamber when they reached 50 seats after the November 8 midterm elections because Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris would serve as the tiebreaker in an evenly-split Senate.
There will be a divided government, however, with Republicans having narrowly flipped control of the House of Representatives.
“After a hard-fought campaign – or should I say campaigns – it is my honour to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy: The people have spoken,” Warnock, 53, told jubilant supporters who packed an Atlanta hotel ballroom .
“I often say that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children,” declared Warnock, a Baptist pastor and his state’s first Black senator. “Georgia, you have been praying with your lips and your legs, your hands and your feet, your heads and your hearts. You have put in the hard work, and here we are standing together.”
In last month’s midterms, Warnock led Walker by 37,000 ballots out of almost four million votes cast, but fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off. The senator appeared to be headed for a wider final margin in Tuesday’s run-off, leading by nearly 100,000 votes with almost all the votes counted, according to the Associate Press news agency.
Walker, a former football star, conceded defeat late on Tuesday, saying he was never going to stop fighting for Georgia.
“There’s no excuses in life and I am not going to make any excuses now because we put up one heck of a fight,” the 60-year-old told supporters.
Walker’s campaign was plagued by repeated gaffes and claims by former girlfriends that he paid for their abortions, even though he has campaigned for the procedure to be outlawed. He has denied the accusations.
He was also forced to acknowledge during the campaign that he had fathered three children outside marriage whom he had never before spoken about publicly.
The mother of one of those children told The Daily Beast that Walker had not seen his young son since January 2016 and had to be taken to court for child support – in direct conflict with Walker’s years spent criticising absentee fathers and his calls for Black men, in particular, to play an active role in their children’s lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He has never denied those specifics and wrote of his violent tendencies in a 2008 memoir that attributed the behaviour to mental illness.
Walker’s defeat is also a setback for former US President Donald Trump as he seeks the Republican nomination to run for the White House again in 2024. The former president endorsed Walker and dozens of other high-profile Republicans in this year’s midterm elections, but he ends with a mixed record in his most competitive contests.
During the run-off campaign, Warnock highlighted concerns over Walker’s personal record at rallies and a barrage of television ads that made the race the most expensive of the 2022 midterm season, with more than $400m spent. His victory is the third Senate win for Democrats in Georgia in the last two years, fuelled by a large Black population and the diversifying Atlanta suburbs that have offset the historic dominance of conservative white voters.
Biden congratulated Warnock and said in a tweet that Georgians had rejected “MAGAism” – a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
Just called @SenatorWarnock to congratulate him on his win.
Tonight Georgia voters stood up for our democracy, rejected Ultra MAGAism, and most importantly: sent a good man back to the Senate. Here’s to six more years. pic.twitter.com/ibx5aprVs3
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 7, 2022
“Tonight Georgia voters stood up for our democracy, rejected Ultra MAGAism, and most importantly: sent a good man back to the Senate. Here’s to six more years,” Biden tweeted.
While voters in Georgia returned Warnock to the Senate, they had also re-elected Republican Governor Brian Kemp by a comfortable margin and chose an all-Republican slate of statewide constitutional officers.
“I’ll work with anyone to get things done for the people of Georgia,” Warnock said throughout his campaign, a nod to the state’s historically conservative sympathies and his need to win over Republican-leaning independents and at least some moderate Republicans.
Warnock paired that argument with an emphasis on his personal values, buoyed by his status as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr once preached.
On Tuesday, Atlanta voter Tom Callaway praised the Republican Party’s strength in Georgia and said he had supported Kemp in the opening round of voting.
But he said he cast his ballot for Warnock because he did not think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator”.
“I didn’t believe he had a statement of what he really believed in or had a campaign that made sense,” Callaway said.