Warnock’s win gave Democrats their 51st Senate seat — handing them more leverage in a chamber that for two years has been evenly split, with Vice President Harris empowered to break ties and two swing-vote Democrats able to make or break their party’s plans.
The result also capped a disappointing midterm cycle for Republicans, who expected a red wave but fell short of retaking the Senate and reclaimed the House majority by a margin of just a few seats. Walker, a first-time candidate ridiculed for gaffes, accused of serious misconduct and elevated by former president Donald Trump, exemplified broader Republican concerns that their nominees — and Trump — undermined their chances. His loss spurred more calls to rethink the party’s direction and strategy.
With more than 97 percent of the vote counted Tuesday night, Warnock led Walker by nearly 2.5 percentage points. An estimated 3.5 million people voted in the runoff, slightly down from the 3.9 million ballots cast in the general election.
The DJ at Warnock’s election night party played “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled right after CNN posted that Warnock was projected to win. Declaring victory late Tuesday, Warnock said he was honored to “utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy” — “the people have spoken.”
“I’m proud of the bipartisan work I’ve done,” he said, “and I intend to do more because I actually believe that at the end of the day, we’re all Americans.”
Walker’s supporters gathered in a prayer circle at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta as media outlets began to call the race. Conceding Tuesday night, Walker said he would not be making excuses for his loss because “we put out one heck of a fight.” Throughout the campaign, he criticized the incumbent as a reliable vote for President Biden’s agenda and said he would check Democrats’ power in Washington and represent “Georgia values.”
Warnock campaigned on Democratic priorities such as legislation to cap drug prices and appealed directly to independents and moderate Republicans, calling Walker unfit for public office and saying the race should come down to “character and competence.” He also promised to support abortion access, as his opponent embraced strict bans that took effect in Georgia and other states after the fall of Roe v. Wade — setting up a stark contrast on an issue that helped galvanize Democrats nationally in an otherwise daunting election year.
Kyle Cartledge, an independent, said he backed Warnock because Walker’s gaffes and the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe alienated him from Republicans this year.
“I wish we had more of a middle, but we don’t seem to have one these days,” said William Shank, who voted for Walker but said he was unenthused about his options.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Warnock would serve as “the last brick in our firewall” against GOP threats to democracy.
Both parties always expected a close contest and lined up colossal resources, with candidates and outside groups spending a combined $380 million on ads for the seat throughout the election cycle. The campaigns focused heavily on in-person get-out-the-vote efforts during the runoff, saying the result would hinge on each candidate’s ability to turn out their base a second time.
Republicans hoped that frustration with Biden and the economy would remain powerful motivators and enlisted surrogates for Walker, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who had kept a distance from the Senate nominee during his own reelection fight.
But as Tuesday neared, some expressed growing doubts about Walker’s ability to bring out a winning coalition without more popular Republicans such as Kemp on the ballot. The GOP’s challenges only seemed to compound in the runoff, with Republicans feuding openly and Democrats growing their spending advantage.
Outside groups helped Walker try to catch up to Warnock’s record-breaking fundraising in the general election and invested more the past four weeks. But Democrats ultimately spent about twice as much as Republicans on ads in the runoff, pumping roughly $60 million more into the race.
While Democrats entered the runoff with the Senate majority in hand, a 51st seat will still have big consequences. Democrats are now expected to get a one-seat majority on committees, which are currently evenly split under a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. That will speed up the confirmation process for judicial and executive nominees by averting tied votes and give Democrats more leverage in oversight hearings.
Another seat will also allow Democrats more room to confirm appointees and pass bills over objections from within their caucus. Two moderate senators, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), currently wield tremendous power to reshape or scuttle legislation. And it boosts Democrats’ position heading into an ominous 2024 Senate map, where they will have to defend many vulnerable incumbents and have tougher odds for a pickup.
Warnock’s win marks the first time in more than a century that all incumbent senators were reelected, and the first time since 1934 that a president’s party gained both Senate and governor’s seats in a midterm. Democrats won two more governorships this cycle.
Karen Schultz, 66, said she almost didn’t come out to vote given the rain and foggy weather in the metro Atlanta area. But “I felt so guilty and I told my husband, ‘We just have to go vote. We have to do our part,’” she said.
Republicans did well in Georgia last month despite their national shortfalls; Kemp won handily in a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams. Yet Walker got about 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp, becoming the only statewide GOP candidate not victorious on Nov. 8. Warnock ran about 1 percentage point ahead of Walker in the general election but fell short of the 50 percent required to win outright in Georgia.
Walker gave his final rally in Kennesaw, Ga., flanked by GOP leaders including Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who called his race a “critical seat that will allow us to stop Joe Biden and the Warnock disastrous agenda that is killing our country.”
Speaking at the same event, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called the runoff an opportunity for Republicans to show that the state’s recent election of Biden and two Democratic senators was a “hiccup.”
In an interview Tuesday night, Dianne Putnam, the chair of the Whitfield County Republican Party, insisted that Georgia remains “a red state.”
“The people just didn’t vote straight down like they should have and that’s usually what Republicans do,” she said of Walker trailing Kemp in November. “I don’t understand that, I really don’t. It’s a mystery to me.”
Ben Burnett, a conservative podcast host and former city councilman in a suburb of Atlanta, echoed calls for the GOP to take a hard look at its strategy. “Winning in the suburbs needs to be the first question that the GOP asks, not the last question that we never answer,” he said.
With nearly 2 million ballots cast before Tuesday, the runoff stoked increasingly vocal GOP concerns about their party’s reliance on a big turnout Tuesday over early voting. Democrats were buoyed by high Black voter turnout last week and said they believed they had the GOP outmatched on the ground, despite Republican investments to repurpose Kemp’s get-out-the-vote operation the past month.
Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church — where the Rev. Martin Luther King once preached — will now serve a full, six-year term. Last year, he won a special election to replace Republican Johnny Isakson, who stepped down over health concerns, and became Georgia’s first Black senator.
He and fellow senator from Georgia, Jon Ossoff (D), both prevailed in a January 2021 runoff that gave Democrats control of the Senate and underscored the state’s shifting political identity. In 2020, Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the traditionally conservative state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Some Republicans blamed Trump for undermining their party’s chances in the runoff by focusing on his own loss in the lead-up, pressuring Georgia officials to overturn the results and spreading GOP distrust of the voting system.
Trump also loomed over the 2022 midterms, often boosting inexperienced or polarizing candidates to primary victories in battleground races. He endorsed Walker but stayed away from Georgia during the general election.
“It’s not his time to come — not his time and place right now,” Fulton County Republican Party Chairman Trey Kelly said of Trump on Tuesday evening.
Trump and Walker’s teams agreed the former president’s presence would not be helpful during the runoff, according to Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. Walker did not advertise a Monday tele-rally with Trump on social media or allow reporters to attend. He did tout the endorsement of another Republican on Facebook that same day — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an increasingly formidable rival to Trump who could challenge him for the presidency in 2024.
Biden also avoided campaigning in Georgia, as Republicans emphasized that Warnock has voted with the president 96 percent of the time and sought to harness widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.
While both Senate candidates attacked each other’s character, allegations from Walker’s past dominated the race. Ex-partners of Walker accused him of domestic violence, said he had little contact with his children and alleged that he paid for their abortions despite his antiabortion views. One of Walker’s sons, who is conservative, harshly criticized Walker this fall and responded scathingly to the outcome on Tuesday, tweeting, “Don’t beat women … fund abortions then pretend [you’re] pro-life … leave your multiple minor children alone to chase more fame, lie … And then maybe you can win a senate seat.”
Walker has spoken openly about a struggle with dissociative identity disorder, and allies pitched him on the trail as a devout Christian who has been redeemed for past mistakes. The GOP nominee denied the abortion claims and some allegations of violence, while saying he cannot remember other incidents.
Democrats worked to highlight Walker’s most puzzling comments from the campaign trail, including a riff about vampires and werewolves, releasing one runoff ad that featured voters listening to sound bites and calling the candidate embarrassing.
Republicans defended Walker’s personal record while leaning into his celebrity status as a former running back at the University of Georgia. They said Warnock was not the “saint” Democrats portrayed, broadcasting allegations from Warnock’s ex-wife that he ran over her foot with a car during an argument. Warnock denies the claim, and law enforcement did not file charges.
Knowles reported from Washington. Rodriguez reported from Atlanta and Norcross, Ga. Wells reported from Marietta, Ga, and Atlanta. Amy B Wang, Liz Goodwin and Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.