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Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia runoff

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock celebrates his election night victory at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta on December 6, 2022.
Matthew Pearson
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WABE
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock celebrates his election night victory at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta on December 6, 2022.

Updated December 7, 2022 at 12:16 AM ET

ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock has won a full term in the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican football legend Herschel Walker in a campaign that tested Georgia's position as a purple state and spurred debates about race, celebrity and partisan politics.

Warnock's victory gives Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority, ending their reliance on the vice president to break ties in an evenly divided chamber and improving the party's prospects for holding its majority in 2024.

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"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 gathered in a hotel ballroom lit in the campaign's signature gold and blue.

Supporters gather in Atlanta as Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock declares victory in the Georgia Senate runoff, one of the most closely-watched races in the country.
Matthew Pearson / WABE
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WABE
Supporters gather in Atlanta as Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock declares victory in the Georgia Senate runoff, one of the most closely-watched races in the country.

More than 3.5 million voters cast ballots in the runoff, down from about 3.9 million in November.

In an election that hinged as much on the personalities of the two candidates as the policies they promoted, Warnock embraced his identity as a pastor to draw contrasts with his opponent, whose candidacy was dogged by controversy.

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.

Throughout the campaign, Walker stumbled to respond to allegations of domestic violence and claims that he paid for ex-girlfriends' abortions, despite expressing support for a nationwide ban on the procedure. He was also prone to gaffes and false claims, exaggerating his record in academics and business and displaying a loose grasp of policy.

Walker delivered a short concession speech at the College Football Hall of Fame.

"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," Walker told supporters.

This is Warnock's second runoff win in less than two years. In January 2021, he won another runoff contest to fill out the term of a retiring Republican, flipping the seat blue for the first time in years and clinching Democratic control of the Senate.

On election night, Warnock cast his story and his campaign as an embodiment of Georgia. He was joined on stage by his two young children and his mother. He often talks about his mother growing up picking someone else's cotton and now picking her son to be a U.S. senator.

Verlene Warnock celebrates her son's election to a full term in the U.S. Senate.  In his victory speech, Warnock said his mother "used to pick somebody else's cotton" but today "helped pick her youngest son to be a U.S. senator."
Matthew Pearson / WABE
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WABE
Verlene Warnock celebrates her son's election to a full term in the U.S. Senate. In his victory speech, Warnock said his mother "used to pick somebody else's cotton" but today "helped pick her youngest son to be a U.S. senator."

"I am Georgia," Warnock said. "I am an example and an iteration of its history, of its pain and its pain and its promise, of the brutality and the possibility, but because this is America and because we always have a path to make our country greater, against unspeakable odds, here we stand together."

Warnock is the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia. The campaign between Walker and Warnock made history as the first time two African Americans ran as the major party's nominees for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Tuesday's runoff was the latest barometer of whether Democrats' electoral victories in Georgia last cycle signaled a new era in the state's politics. The race also reflected the extent of Donald Trump's influence post-presidency. Walker, who Trump urged to run, was the only Georgia Republican not to win outright in November.

Neither Walker nor Warnock topped 50% in the general election, resulting in a runoff.

On the campaign trail, Warnock touted his bipartisan bonafides in Washington, even as Walker sought to tie him to President Biden, whose approval ratings are underwater in Georgia. Especially in the final weeks of the campaign, Warnock explicitly appealed to independents and Republican-leaning voters hesitant about Walker to support him instead.

"This is not about right and left," Warnock told voters before a rally with former President Barack Obama last week in Atlanta. "This is about the difference between right and wrong."

In November, Walker won about 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. The gap was most pronounced in Atlanta's northern suburbs, once Republican strongholds that have trended toward Democrats in recent years.

"My vote isn't bound by party alone," says Cameron Lewellen, who voted for Kemp in November and for Warnock both times. "It does actually matter what you say because I'm an American first and a Republican second."

While Walker's campaign tried to focus on the economy, his stump speech catered largely to the state's most conservative voters, devoting as much time to criticizing transgender people in sports and the military as talking about inflation.

His speeches were often light on policy and leaned heavily into his personal story and humorous anecdotes, including one now-infamous aside about werewolves and vampires.

"We need leaders in Washington who say if you don't like the rules of the United States of America you can leave," Walker recently told a crowd gathered inside a community gymnasium in Dalton. "That's what we need right now."

The campaigns and outside groups spent roughly $80 million in television advertising for the four-week runoff.

More than 1.8 million Georgians cast ballots by the end of early voting last week. Multiple days broke records for daily, in-person voting, reflecting both enthusiasm and a Republican-backed election law that condensed the runoff window from nine weeks to four. At some early vote locations, voters waited in lines for more than two hours to cast their ballots.

Born 115 miles and seven years apart, Walker and Warnock followed diverging paths to the heights of two of the most important institutions in the South — the church and college football.

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Herschel Walker speaks during a campaign stop in Dawsonville, Ga., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
John Bazemore / AP
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AP
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Herschel Walker speaks during a campaign stop in Dawsonville, Ga., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.

Decades after he played for the University of Georgia and later the NFL, Walker remains a celebrated figure in Georgia. At campaign stops, supporters lined up carrying hats, jerseys and footballs for the former football star to autograph.

Warnock is the senior pastor at the church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the trail often channeled his hero's emphasis on the overlap between activism and faith.

And so it was fitting that on the final weekend of campaigning, Warnock carved out his Sunday morning to preach from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Across town, Walker snapped photos with fans tailgating outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, where his University of Georgia Bulldogs secured the SEC championship title.

Copyright 2022 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.