Politics

How Raphael Warnock’s Win Reflects the Entire Midterm Cycle

The year of Republicans blowing it is now complete.

Raphael Warnock stands at a podium and smiles.
Sen. Raphael Warnock won the Georgia runoff on Dec. 6, netting a 51-seat majority for Democrats in the Senate. Jason Getz/the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/AbacaPress.Com

In the runoff for the last Senate race of the cycle, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia, earning a full six-year term and adding a 51st seat to Democrats’ Senate majority.

Networks began to call the race in Warnock’s favor around 10 p.m. Tuesday, as Warnock had taken the lead and the vast number of remaining ballots to be counted were from Democratic counties.

Warnock, like the rest of overpoliticked Georgia, can now take a breather after three years of endless campaigning. He, as Georgia’s first multiple Senate campaign–winning Democrat in some time, has provided the road map for other statewide candidates: Raise what one Democratic source working on the race described to me as “more money than God” and, also, run campaign ads with a dog.

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Senate Republicans, meanwhile, now get to relive their recent trauma from Nov. 8.

They have just lost their third Georgia Senate race in a row after not losing any for decades. There’s no need to overcomplicate the reason: It’s the same story this cycle of how Republicans lost Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Nevada. In each case, the Republican candidate—for all of the midterm election advantages the party enjoyed—was simply bad.

And Walker, to quote the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia, “will probably go down as one of the worst candidates in our party’s history.”

Well, he’s certainly had challenges. There were the repeated bombshells late in the campaign regarding … inconsistencies in his posture toward abortion rights. Early in the campaign—before he’d even announced—court documents showed allegations from his ex-wife that he’d repeatedly threatened to kill her. It wasn’t the only allegation of violence that would emerge from an ex.

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Walker displayed a limited understanding of public policy, and, in the last weekend of the campaign, even for which chamber of Congress he was running. Clips of him regularly saying nonsense at campaign stops went viral. It remained unclear through the day of the runoff the extent to which Walker lives in Georgia.

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So why, exactly, did Republicans nominate a candidate as lousy as Walker for this prized seat? It’s complicated.

Just kidding. It’s mostly Trump’s fault.

Herschel Walker is famous in Georgia, and he liked Trump. And if you’re a famous person who likes Trump, it’s almost automatic that Trump will push you to run for Senate in any given state. This wasn’t one of those primaries in which a slew of relatively competitive candidates entered the race and Trump pushed his favorite over the top with a late-race endorsement, as he did with Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona, or J.D. Vance in Ohio. Walker entered the race with Trump’s backing, giving him a formidable presence in the beginning. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s team was, as Politico wrote in 2021, initially “worried that revelations about his past behavior would make him a weak nominee.” But McConnell fell in line in the fall of 2021, endorsing Walker as “the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate.”

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Walker, though, it turns out, was the only Republican who could not win Georgia in 2022.

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This is still a state that was comfortably red until 2020, and Republicans swept every other statewide race on the ballot in this year’s midterms—seven of them—without a runoff. Once they got through their primaries against Trump-backed challengers, sitting statewide officeholders like Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—who had refused, with unknown powers, to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results—coasted to general election wins. Walker eluded a meaningful primary challenge because he had Trump’s support, and then he lost a general election with it.

Trump, with surprising discipline, kept out of Georgia during the runoff to avoid damaging Walker any further. Instead, it was Kemp, fresh off a strong reelection to governor, who tried to drag Walker over the finish line. Kemp rallied with Walker for the first time during the runoff, and he appeared in campaign ads to boost Walker. Kemp also lent the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC, his formidable get-out-the-vote operation.

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But Walker couldn’t ride Kemp’s coattails to a victory on Nov. 8 when Kemp was actually on the ballot—and Kemp’s help in the runoff also wasn’t enough.

Walker’s loss won’t come as a surprise to leading Republicans at this point. Officials were already well underway dishing out preelection blame to the New York Times about Walker’s “pace” of campaigning. Warnock had more money, a better ground game, better ad-makers, a better grasp of the issues, and a better public image. Walker had a better college football career in Georgia.

But it must make it sting all over again for Senate Republicans, you know? These midterms, in which Joe Biden was unpopular, the economy was viewed poorly, and Republicans won the national popular vote in House races, Democrats actually expanded their Senate majority. Republicans do have a juicy Senate map to look forward to in 2024. But 2024 is in two whole years. And Chuck Schumer will spend those next two years confirming judges.

The silver lining Republicans can hope for after this final dagger of the 2022 midterms, though, is that after yet another Trump-backed candidate’s loss—following a Nov. 8 election night defined by them—the average Republican primary voter may want to move on from Trump. Republican leaders themselves can never convince a base that doesn’t want to hear it that Trump, and everyone he touches, is a loser. But maybe the staggering amount of data in the 2022 midterms can.

Yeah, they can always hope

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