With Warnock’s win, seriousness trumps celebrity in Georgia’s protracted Senate race

The senatorial showdown was less a referendum on policy than it was on identity

Raphael Warnock wins Georgia Senate runoff
Senator Raphael Warnock speaks to the crowd at the Marriott Marquis on December 6.

Photograph by Philip W. Patton

Georgia football’s bulldog grip on the Peach State couldn’t quite carry Herschel Walker to the endzone of our muddy political gridiron. Instead, Reverend Raphael Warnock will remain in the U.S. Senate for his first full six-year term.

Around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, after hours of seesawing election results teased leads for both candidates, it became clear the onetime star running back and embattled Republican, handpicked by former President Donald Trump to run for Senate, would lose to Warnock, the incumbent Democrat who harnessed two years of in-office experience, pastoral wisdom, and sheer charisma to mount a bid for reelection.

By the time election workers tallied the runoff race’s final ballots, Warnock was ahead of Walker by nearly three percentage points (51.4 percent to 48.6 percent at press time) in a contest Rabbi Joshua Lesser, speaking before a progressive crowd in downtown’s Marriott Marquis ballroom, called “one of the most cynical political campaigns of our lifetime.”

Taking the stage around 11 p.m., Warnock thanked God, his congregants, his family, and supporters. “After a hard-fought campaign—or should I say campaigns?—it is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever said in a democracy: The people have spoken,” he said.

Raphael Warnock wins Georgia Senate runoff
Students and supporters from Morehouse College celebrate as Warnock’s victory is announced.

Photograph by Philip W. Patton

Raphael Warnock wins Georgia Senate runoff
Warnock supporter Jackie Robinson celebrates in the front row of the Marriott Marquis crowd as Warnock’s victory is announced.

Photograph by Philip W. Patton

The wildly expensive senatorial showdown was less a referendum on policy than it was on identity—and, for some, college sports allegiances. In the game of politics, name recognition can catapult a candidate to electoral feasibility as much as a sturdy platform can—and Walker had celebrity in spades, thanks largely to his years as a lightning-fast and bruising runner for the University of Georgia in the early 1980s.

Charlie Bailey, who last month lost the race for lieutenant governor to Trump-backed Republican state Senator Burt Jones, attended UGA, too. But, despite his familiarity with the romance so many Georgians have for Them Dawgs, Bailey doesn’t see rushing yards and touchdowns as qualifying traits for a political candidate. He’s relieved enough voters felt the same.

“I grew up loving Herschel Walker; I had a VHS of the 1980 season,” Bailey said in an interview Tuesday night. But had Walker run for office without the starpower from his glory days, the attorney added, “He wouldn’t even be here.”

Party loyalty also played a major role in advancing Walker in the race, Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie told Atlanta Wednesday morning.

“There are still more Republicans in the state than there are Democrats, so in an era of hyperpartisanship . . . there were going to be Republicans who could not bring themselves to vote for Raphael Warnock because he’s a Democrat”—and vice versa.

Walker’s campaign will be hard to fully dissect, buoyed by bizarre rants featuring transphobic remarks, incomprehensible analyses of werewolves’ capacity to vanquish vampires, and outright lies about well-reported claims regarding his romantic and family life. Warnock, by contrast, campaigned like a serious political candidate—on promises to boost Georgia’s job market, bolster voting rights, and protect the environment, among other plans.

Warnock’s win will grant Democrats an extra edge in the Senate—which, come January, will be led by 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans—better positioning them to expand access to reproductive care, bolster support for the LGBTQ+ community, regulate firearms, and potentially reimagine the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuesday night capped a tumultuous and exhausting midterm election season that’s brought the national spotlight back to Georgia, but as voters buried in campaign mailers and bombarded by incessant attack ads breathe a sigh of relief, Democrats can’t take their foot off the gas heading toward 2024, Gillespie said.

“Democrats are still the underdog, and they’re going to have to organize and strategize like they’re the underdog,” she said, meaning no potential voter should be taken for granted. For instance, “There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of minority voter turnout, and I think that’s something that can be achieved.”

As for Walker, could his loss Tuesday be the nail in his political coffin? “He hadn’t really built a coffin yet,” Gillespie said, wondering, “Could or should Herschel Walker run again for office?” Only with some serious coaching.