early and often

Walker-Warnock Senate Race Goes to Overtime

Once more, with feeling. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

From the moment Raphael Warnock narrowly won a U.S. Senate seat to represent Georgia last year, he’s had to keep fighting to stay in office. The fight will continue on December 6, when he faces Republican Herschel Walker in a general-election runoff triggered by Georgia’s rare majority-vote requirement for public offices. With the final votes still trickling in, Warnock has just over 49 percent of the vote and Walker has just under 49 percent, with a libertarian candidate holding the balance. On Wednesday afternoon, CNN projected that the race will go to a runoff. It’s unclear whether control of the Senate will hang in the balance once again, as it did in 2020, but the runoff will likely be close.

Warnock’s initial win was in a special election against Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to finish her predecessor’s term by Governor Brian Kemp (one of the first major offenses Kemp committed against the imperial will of Donald Trump, who preferred a different candidate). Warnock benefited from a sunny disposition, overwhelming support among Democrats, and Loeffler’s prior struggle to fend off a right-wing rival. She scrambled to depict him as a “radical liberal” but couldn’t move to the center herself because she was lashed to Trump, who undermined her by bitterly criticizing the integrity of Georgia’s Republican-run election system.

For all of these reasons, Republicans considered Warnock something of an accidental senator ripe for the plucking in 2022. But Warnock, who quickly drew national attention thanks to his day job pastoring the church once led by Martin Luther King Jr., turned out to be a fundraising dynamo. And Republicans were initially grateful for the very mixed blessing of obtaining their dream candidate to beat him, football legend and longtime Trump chum Walker.

Non-Georgians struggled to comprehend the pedestal on which Walker stood in the state. He wasn’t just the University of Georgia running back who won the Heisman Trophy and led the Dawgs to a national championship. After a successful pro career (at first with the Trump-owned New Jersey Generals of the USFL), he was on the U.S. Winter Olympics bobsled team and in his late 40s began competing and winning in mixed martial arts. He combined all that athletic success with a humble and God-fearing public persona. And while 2022 primary rivals warned fellow Republicans that Walker had a lot of skeletons in his closet, the general feeling is Herschel was perhaps bulletproof because he had already gone negative on himself by disclosing a past mental illness that explained incidents of erratic conduct and threats of domestic violence.

The general-election campaign soon devolved into a competition not so much between Warnock and Walker as between Walker’s partisan appeal in a pro-Republican midterm election and the ever-growing list of allegations about his past behavior, ranging from business improprieties and inaccurate biographic claims, to very dangerous violent threats even after his mental illness was treated and “cured,” to a series of unacknowledged, born-out-of-wedlock children. The potential coup de grâce involved claims that this hard-core opponent of legalized abortion had on more than one occasion urged a woman he impregnated to terminate the pregnancy. Walker the hero was beginning to look like Walker the cad, the liar, and the hypocrite, as his own (acknowledged) son pointed out.

In a clever nod to his party’s white conservative Evangelical base, Walker turned his trespasses into a narrative of a sinner redeemed. He also reassured Republicans concerned about his often incoherent public utterances by performing credibly in the sole debate with Warnock that he agreed to attend. With united MAGA and Republican Establishment backing and a lot of money from super-PACs, Walker overcame the significant Warnock lead that ensued from the worst of the revelations about the Republican, though he consistently ran behind ticket mate Kemp (who won well over 50 percent in his rematch with Democratic icon Stacey Abrams). It’s anybody’s guess whether Herschel Walker will leave his baggage behind and win in December, or lose a big game on which Trump and his party have gambled.

More on the 2022 midterms

See All
Walker-Warnock Senate Race Goes to Overtime