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Democratic Sen. Warnock defeats Republican Walker in Georgia runoff

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock successfully fended off a challenge from Republican football star Herschel Walker Tuesday, NBC News projects.

Photo illustration of Georgia Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, surrounded by "I Voted" stickers and ballot bubbles

Dec. 6, 2022, 5:22 PM EST / Updated Dec. 6, 2022, 10:27 PM EST

By Alex Seitz-Wald and Sahil Kapur

ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican football star Herschel Walker on Tuesday in Georgia’s Senate runoff election, NBC News projects, handing President Joe Biden and his party a key win.

Warnock’s victory will give Democrats an outright majority in the Senate after two years under a 50-50 divide, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

Senate Republicans had been hoping to get a headstart on the 2024 election, when the electoral map heavily favors the GOP. But Walker was dogged by scandals, a more than 2-to-1 spending disadvantage and lack of confidence in both the candidate and his campaign from some GOP officials.

Republican voters typically wait to vote on Election Day, but their voters did not turn out on a damp and drizzly Tuesday in the numbers the Walker needed to overcome the advantage Warnock had banked during the early vote window.

In an interview with NBC News, Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks credited the victory in part to driving the contrast between candidates — and continuing to appeal to independent and Republican-leaning voters who had reservations about Walker.

“When it turned out to be Herschel Walker, we immediately looked at the landscape and saw an opportunity to say that we can make this race about ‘the Reverend’ versus ‘the running back.’ And if we did that, we could control our own destiny within this cycle,” Fulks said.

“There could have been other campaign operatives or another campaign that could have said, ‘OK, Herschel Walker has all this baggage, so we’re just going to run to the left and just try to turn out as many of our voters and just let Republicans eat their own,’” Fulks added. “We didn’t do that.”

Fulks said one of the biggest challenges was to motivate voters to turn out on an unusual Dec. 6 Election Day.

“We had to make our own energy organic,” he said

The runoff election was triggered by state law because neither candidate won an outright majority in the November election

Democrats’ 51st vote means they can rip up the power-sharing arrangement they struck with Senate Republicans and secure a clear majority of votes on committees. They’ll also have one vote to spare on matters like confirming executive branch nominees and judges.

DEC. 6, 202205:33

The extra seat could also be critical to Democrats’ chances of retaining the majority in 2024, when the electoral map heavily favors Republicans. 

Walker, who was backed by former President Donald Trump and was a star running back for the University of Georgia and in the NFL, had been dragged down by mounting scandals and a sense of pessimism about his campaign. 

Warnock, who for years was the pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, has tried to reach swing voters by portraying the race as not as a contest between Republicans and Democrats, but about “right versus wrong,” as he said in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid Monday.

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Still, Georgia has been a reliably red state until just two years ago, when it voted for President Joe Biden and then elected Warnock and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in twin runoff elections.

Walker has warned Republicans that they need to turn out to stop national Democrats from gaining more power. “If you don’t vote, you’re going to get more of Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity Monday night.

A drizzly and chilly Tuesday did little to dampen the motivated voters of Atlanta.

Duane Cochenour, a 61-year-old attorney, cast a vote in his midtown Atlanta precinct for Walker. But he said he’s “not crazy about” the Republican and was reluctant to support him.

“I’m not a Donald Trump fan at all. I really wish he would go away. That’s my biggest negative in voting for Walker — I didn’t want to be perceived as a vote in favor of a Trump candidate,” Cochenour said, reflecting the mood that helped turn Georgia blue two years ago. “But I felt like the importance of taking the Senate back outweighed that.”

Rebecca Perdomo, 29, a consultant in Atlanta, said she voted for Warnock because of his progressive views, particularly on abortion. Perdomo said he didn’t vote in the midterm election last month because she was out of the country so she made sure she voted this time.

“I was really upset about that. So I was like, I have to make sure I come here today. It’s really important,” she said.

Matthew Pinder, 24, said he voted for Warnock because he’s “reasonable” and “the other candidate isn’t.”

Bob Boyd, the director of operations and finance for Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, a polling place in midtown Atlanta, said he’s seen “heavier turnout” on Tuesday compared to Nov. 8 Election Day.

He said that may be because the window for early voting was shorter in the runoff than last month’s election, prompting more Election Day votes.

Sahil Kapur reported from Atlanta, and Alex Seitz-Wald from Washington. 

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.

Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

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