Raphael Warnock won re-election for a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate in Tuesday's runoff election.
Warnock defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker by 98,000 votes just a month after besting him by 35,000 votes in the general election. Warnock fell short of a majority on Nov. 8, leading to the runoff. Warnock finished well ahead of other statewide Democratic candidates in the general election in November.
After another four weeks of campaigning, he will be returning to Washington alongside fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff.
TV networks CNN and NBC called the race just before 10:30 p.m. and the Associated Press followed five minutes later. Attendees at the downtown Atlanta Marriot where Warnock's campaign held the election night party raised their phones to snap photos of a massive screen playing CNN, commemorating the call.
Senate runoff recap: Georgians return to the polls to choose Warnock or Walker
Warnock's campaign party had a celebratory mood all evening. Guests, including Hollywood director Spike Lee and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, gave speeches as the results rolled in. But the announcement that Warnock had won brought the loudest and longest cheer yet.
Warnock himself took the stage just before 11:15 p.m. to deliver his victory speech.
“I want to say thank you from, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and to God be the glory -” he began, before pausing for a roar of approval from the crow. “- for the great things that God has done. And 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 recounted his family history, recalling how his mother grew up picking cotton and his father supported the family hauling cars, and his own history growing up in Savannah.
“I am Georgia,” he said. “I am an example and an iteration of its history, of 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, thank you Georgia.”
Warnock said that his victory was not evidence that voter suppression does not exist in Georgia, but that instead it was an indicator that voters had managed to overcome it. His campaign sued to allow early voting on Saturday, and Warnock made a point to highlight their victory in that case. He also highlighted several policy issues – lowering prescription drug prices, creating jobs, and working on criminal justice reform.
Most of all, he thanked his staff, volunteers and voters.
“After a hard-fought campaign, you got me for six more years,” he said.
Rollercoaster scene at Walker HQ
As the vote count neared completion Tuesday night around 10 p.m., the crowd at Walker's watch party were on a rollercoaster of emotions.
The Fox News live count of the race on the projected screen at the front of the room fluctuated back and forth as the close race tilted to Walker, then back to Warnock.
Cheers erupt, then the crowd falls silent, a couple of times every 10 minutes or so.
But as the night wound down, and warnocks lead extended to about 30,000 votes, the silence began to persist.
Long running race at a close
Tuesday is the end of about 11 months of campaigning between Warnock and Walker.
The Senate contest is the longest running statewide race in Georgia this year. While Walker faced primary opponents, he consistently polled well ahead of them, breezing past his Republican challengers and focusing on Warnock. Warnock had no serious primary challenges.
While Republicans held significant leads in other statewide races, the Senate race was the only one to go to a runoff after Warnock finished slightly ahead of Walker. Chase Oliver, the Libertarian candidate in the race, gathered about 2% of the vote, keeping either major party candidate from hitting 50% and leading to the runoff.
The runoff also brought a fierce legal battle over whether counties could offer Saturday early voting the weekend after Thanksgiving. The Secretary of State's office announced there would be no Saturday voting due to a state law banning voting within two days of a holiday, but Warnock and Democratic groups sued and ultimately won voting on the Saturday.
Warnock was elected in 2021 in a special election to fill out the term of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health. He defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill Isakson's seat prior to the special election.
Isakson had served two full terms, but with mounting medical issues he retired at the end of 2019 with two years left in his tenure. Because Isakson's term was not completed, Warnock has only served briefly in office before running for re-election to a full six-year term.
Pastor runs against football star
Sen. Warnock had not held elected office before his 2021 win, and Walker has never held elected office before.
Warnock was born in Savannah in 1969 and holds degrees from Morehouse and Union Theological Seminary. In 2005 Warnock became the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the same church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father pastored. Warnock still holds that role.
Walker was born in 1962 and raised in Wrightsville. He famously played football for the University of Georgia — the Bulldogs won a national title in his freshman year in 1980 and Walker himself won the Heisman Trophy in 1982.
Walker's away-from-the-football-field past has dogged him the entire race.
Among other things, in June it was revealed that Walker had four children, not just his son Christian. Walker's ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, said he threatened her with violence on several occasions. Walker exaggerated the success of some of his businesses, including one that does not appear to exist.
Two women came forward to allege that Walker paid for their abortions, one in 1993 and one in 2009, despite his his anti-abortion stance, which once called for a total ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. After these abortion allegations, his son Christian, a conservative voice with his own following, blasted Walker.
Warnock also faced scrutiny over a housing project owned by a charity associated with the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The management company at the project filed eviction notices for non-payment of rent, including less than $30 in one case. The company told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that no one had actually been evicted for non-payment since June of 2020 and neither Warnock nor the church was involved in the building operation.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: GA Senate runoff election: Raphael Warnock wins re-election