Warnock delivers final midterm blow to the GOP
What a 51-seat Democratic majority means for the U.S. Senate and beyond
WASHINGTON—Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., took to the stage in a crowded room in Atlanta Wednesday night to victoriously close out his reelection bid: “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.”
Only four weeks after last month’s general election, Warnock’s campaign successfully encouraged Democrats to turn out and vote in the state of Georgia, cruising to a nearly 3 percentage point runoff win over Republican challenger Herschel Walker. While the margin looks narrow on paper, 51.4 percent of the vote is far more than analysts expected. Warnock will return to Washington, but this time as the 51st vote in a true Democratic-majority Senate. While his victory did not determine the majority, the runoff results do affect how the newest iteration of the Senate will function. And Walker’s loss indicates changes for the GOP ahead of 2024.
Warnock repeatedly reminded Georgians that this was his fourth go-round on the ballot despite only being in politics for two years. The pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta touted his two general and two runoff wins and attacked his opponent’s moral character. But Warnock combined these messages with money—a lot of it. He raised more than double what Walker did and used significant portions of it in ads touting his pro-abortion stance and attacks on Walker’s personal life. AdImpact, which tracks campaign ad spending, estimated Democrats outspent Republicans $55.1 million to $25.8 million in the runoff alone.
Walker battled personal scandals ranging from domestic abuse allegations to whistleblower reports that he pressured some girlfriends into having abortions and fathered at least three children out of wedlock. The former Heisman Trophy winner who played football for the University of Georgia ran at the urging of former President Donald Trump, who didn’t come to the state to stump for his candidate in the weeks leading up to the runoff.
Most political analysts along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky noted the low “candidate quality” in several midterm races for Senate seats, with Walker making many of their lists of such candidates. Although he netted roughly 1.7 million votes in the runoff, Georgia Republicans who voted for incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp balked at Walker’s name on the ballot. Even President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and Warnock’s history of voting for Biden-led legislation failed to funnel independents and lukewarm moderates toward the GOP candidate.
According to FiveThirtyEight, this is the first year in Senate history that every incumbent kept his or her seat. That’s unusual, especially for a midterm election year, when the party in the White House typically suffers losses.
Republicans blame themselves for losing what should have been a strong win in a deeply purple state like Georgia. National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Rick Scott of Florida made the strategic decision to funnel a lot of money into his Senate Leadership Fund instead of into campaigns. He also propped up candidates that establishment Republicans thought were too weak. Additionally, GOP messaging has cast doubt on early voting, urging many to wait until Election Day.
Analysts like Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report said the combination of a failing tactic and dousing voter energy contributed to Walker’s loss. She noted that the results should deliver a strong message to Republicans about Trump and his influence.
“What should have been a referendum on Biden and the first two years of his administration became one on Trump and his chosen candidate after he inserted himself into an election in a way no former president ever has before,” Taylor wrote. “Walker shows us that candidates still matter and split-ticket voters still exist. This was a completely and totally disappointing midterm for Senate Republicans and a huge indictment on Trump, Trumpism, and the mutually assured destruction the former president insists on taking the party.”
Trump has already declared his candidacy for 2024, a year in which the GOP can’t afford missteps. If the Senate makeup is the same in two years, at least eight of the 23 Democrats who will be on the ballot must defend highly competitive seats. Warnock’s win in Georgia gives them a slight buffer, but Republicans are in a better position to flip key seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona in two years. Meanwhile, only 11 GOP senators will be up for reelection, most of whom represent safely red states.
But for now, Senate Democrats are breathing “a sigh of relief,” according to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. In a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, he said his caucus is celebrating the power shift. With a solid 51-49 split, Democrats will be less likely to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote as the president of the Senate. More importantly, it means a committee shakeup is on the way: With the current 50-50 divide, all 24 committees are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. With Warnock’s win, committees will lean Democrat in the new year, making it easier for them to pursue the Biden administration’s agenda. The ability to subpoena, along with other committee actions, will also be open to Democrats without the need for Republican consent.
Schumer chalked up Walker’s failure to a broader failure of Trump’s style of MAGA (Make America Great Again) politics. Indeed, most of the former president’s most extreme Senate candidates, such as Don Bolduc in New Hampshire and Adam Laxalt in Nevada, lost in their bids to unseat Democrats. Schumer indicated this helped his party in November.
“Many of the voters in the middle came over to us because they worried what the Republican Party under MAGA control would do to our democracy,” he told reporters. “There are a good number of Republicans in the Senate and the House who are not MAGA Republicans who know that if the Republican Party follows the hard right and the extreme members in their caucuses, they’ll continue to lose ground. It is my intention to reach out to them and see how we can work in a bipartisan way.”
As for Sen. Warnock, he can relax after a hectic two years of campaigning and focus on his first full six-year term. That is, if he remains in office. After repeated wins in the Peach State, Democrats have their eye on him as a highly visible and likely strong presidential contender. And a record-high turnout and divided party victories this year mean Georgia will be a key battleground state in 2024.
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