ATLANTA - Sen. Raphael Warnock claimed victory late Tuesday night in a tight runoff race for U.S. Senate. Warnock beat out Republican challenger Herschel Walker, a Georgia football legend.
Georgians voted for the Democratic incumbent to his first six-year term after being seated following a special election in 2020.
This runoff brought to a close a bitter fight between Warnock, the state’s first Black senator and the senior minister of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and Walker, a former University of Georgia football star and political novice who waged his bid in the mold of former President Donald Trump.
This victory for Warnock solidified Georgia’s status as a battleground heading into the 2024 presidential election.
"Thank you, Georgia. We did it again," Walker tweeted Tuesday night, claiming his victory in the race.
"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, 53, told jubilant supporters who packed a downtown 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."
With Warnock's second runoff victory in as many years, Democrats will have a 51-49 Senate majority, gaining a seat from the current 50-50 split with John Fetterman's victory in Pennsylvania. There will be divided government, however, with Republicans having narrowly flipped House control.
"The numbers look like they're not going to add up," Walker told supporters in a concession speech late Tuesday at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. "There's no excuses in life and I'm not going to make any excuses now because we put up one heck of a fight."
In last month's election, Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes out of almost four million cast but fell shy of a majority, triggering the second round of voting. About 1.9 million votes had already been cast by mail and during early voting, an advantage for Democrats whose voters more commonly cast ballots this way. Walker's campaign hoped to counteract that surge by drawing at least 60% of the Election Day vote, where Republicans typically fare better.
Warnock, whose victory in 2020 was in a special election to serve out the remainder of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, sounded a confident note Monday during a packed day of campaigning. He predicted that he had convinced enough voters, including independents and moderate Republicans who supported Kemp, that he deserved a full term.
"They’ve seen that I will work with anybody that helps me to do good work for the people of Georgia," said the 53-year-old senator. "I think they’re going to get this right. They know this race is about competence and character."
Walker campaigned Monday with his wife, Julie, greeting supporters and offering thanks rather than his usual campaign speech.
"I love y’all, and we’re gonna win this election," he said at a winery in Ellijay, comparing it to championships he won as an athlete. "I love winning championships."
Warnock’s campaign spent about $170 million on the campaign, far outpacing Walker’s nearly $60 million, according to their latest federal disclosures. But Democratic and Republican party committees, along with other political action committees, spent even more.
The senator paired his push for bipartisanship with an emphasis on his personal values, buoyed by his status as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. And, beginning with the closing stretch before the Nov. 8 general election, Warnock added withering takedowns of Walker, using the football star’s rocky past to argue that the political newcomer was "not ready" and "not fit" for high office.
The crowd at Sen. Raphael Warnock's Election Night party react to the news that some media outlets had called the race in Warnock's favor.
Walker, who used his athletics fame to coast to the GOP nomination, sought to portray Warnock as a yes-man for President Joe Biden. Walker sometimes made the attack in especially personal terms, complete with accusing Warnock of having his "back bent" and "being on his knees, begging" at the White House — a searing charge for a Black challenger to level against a Black senator about his relationship with a white president.
After the general election, Biden, who has struggled with low approval ratings, promised to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Bypassing the president, Warnock decided instead to campaign with former President Barack Obama in the days before the runoff election.
For his part, Walker was endorsed by Trump but avoided campaigning with him until the campaign’s final day: The pair conducted a conference call Monday with supporters, according to a Republican National Committee spokesperson.
Walker’s candidacy was the GOP’s last chance to flip a Senate seat this year. Dr. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, Blake Masters of Arizona, Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, all Trump loyalists, already lost competitive Senate races that Republicans once considered part of their path to a majority.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.