In the final 2022 midterms battle, Georgia voters gave Senate Democrats an extra cushion when they extended the party’s majority by reelecting incumbent Raphael Warnock on Tuesday.
The victory ends one of the most expensive and spirited contests of the 2022 midterm cycle, as Warnock faced Republican Herschel Walker, a football star who had been recruited by former President Donald Trump to help the GOP retake the Senate.
But after a series of campaign fumbles that brought serious questions about Walker's ability to serve, even from some Republicans, the campaign began to slip out of GOP hands.
Warnock leaned heavily on a two-pronged campaign strategy spotlighting his two-year record as a collegial lawmaker who could work with the GOP while jabbing at rising questions about his rival’s character and competence.
“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," he told supporters Tuesday evening.
Walker ran heavily on the economy, culture war issues and President Joe Biden's unpopularity in a year Republicans had expected a "red wave" to overtake Congress.
But that didn't help the former NFL star running back reach the goal line.
Instead Warnock's win solidified a cycle in which Democrats defied history by defending every incumbent Senate seat, a first for the party in power since 1934.
"There are no excuses in life," Walker said at a watch party Tuesday night. "I'm not going to make any excuses now."
During his concession speech Walker said running for the Senate was one of the best decisions of his life. He also urged those in attendance to support their elected officials and to "stay together, don't let anyone separate you."
"I want you to believe in America and continue to believe in the Constitution and believe in our elected officials," he said.
Georgia 2022 Senate runoff recap:: Warnock wins election, boosting Democratic majority
Warnock's victory also ends marathon elections for the Atlanta pastor in a campaign that was as much about the New South, race and identity between two Black candidates who were different in every aspect.
The pastor now makes history as Georgia's first Black senator elected to a full six-year term after going through a gauntlet of four high-profile races in about two years.
"To my mother, who is here tonight, she grew up in the 1950’s in Georgia picking somebody else’s cotton and somebody else’s tobacco," Warnock said.
"But tonight, she helped pick her youngest son to be a United States senator."
Walker’s loss is bound to be viewed as a referendum on Trump given how heavily he recruited his longtime friend to run the year leading up to the race.
“He told me he’s going to (run), and I think he will,” Trump told a conservative talk radio host in 2021. "He’s a great guy. He’s a patriot. And he’s a very loyal person, he’s a very strong person. They love him in Georgia, I’ll tell you,
But the former president was largely absent during most of the campaign, and especially during the final stretch.
Trump, who announced a 2024 presidential bid last month, never joined Walker on the campaign trail for any in-person event as other high-profile Republicans did. He did host a "tele-rally" for the former football star on Monday night and posted on his social media site Truth Social.
The Georgia runoff is also likely to be used by Trump's rivals within the GOP to question his ability as a so-called kingmaker after many of the candidates he supported for Senate and governor were defeated in the primary and general elections.
Republican consultant Matt Whitlock said after Gov. Brian Kemp "trounced" Trump's handpicked opponent in the GOP primary earlier this year that Walker would have trouble.
"Georgia has grown impervious to President Trump’s charms," Whitlock said in a tweet Tuesday. "If he’s on a future ballot there I’d count the state in the blue column (again)."
A check on Manchin, Sinema's power
Whereas Republicans may have lacked a certain enthusiasm during the runoff, the stakes still meant something for progressive groups and activists in the state.
Besides keeping Walker, who was beset by domestic allegations and made a series of nonsensical remarks on the trail, out of office, many spoke to a larger reason for reelecting Warnock.
Those leaders said Georgia was important in making sure Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—two more conservative-leaning members of the Democratic caucus—had less power.
A 51-49 majority gives Democrats more breathing room because it gives them a clean majority on Senate committees. That will likely mean little in terms of policy goals given the Republicans took back the House, but it will be significant in terms of judicial appointments and other key confirmations for the next two years.
Brandon Tucker, a senior director of policy and government affairs with Color of Change PAC, a national racial justice group, said holding that 51st seat will be critical in the coming months.
"We know that in order to protect the right to vote, to transform our criminal legal system and to expand public safety we need people who are in line with a progressive vision," he said.
"Reelecting Sen. Warnock is extremely important for those national implications."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia voters extend Democrat Senate majority by reelecting Warnock