Sanity strikes again.
Raphael Warnock’s victory over Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff caps an election season in which the normal, the sensible and the fans of fact regained their voice and gave hope that, after long years in which American democracy was feared to be at death’s door, the patient is rallying.
In simple mathematics, the win gives Democrats 51 seats to Republicans’ 49 in the Senate, speeding up confirmation of Joe Biden’s administrative and judicial nominees and starving the conservative West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin of some of the oxygen he enjoys as the swing vote.
But more philosophically, it serves as another corrective to the notion that all America suddenly went mad on 8 November 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected instead of Hillary Clinton. Looking back, it’s pertinent to recall that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million and benefited from a unique cocktail of circumstances that included entrenched misogyny and running against the ultimate establishment politician.
Since then, election after election has demonstrated that Trump’s brand was never what the majority of Americans wanted. Admittedly he improved his vote total in 2020, but he still lost to Joe Biden by seven million. The rout of Trump-endorsed election deniers in last month’s midterms has made even some Republicans understand that the man who despises “losers” is the biggest loser of all.
In a normal political universe, then, Walker’s defeat on Tuesday would be the final nail in Trump’s political coffin. The former American football star was the ultimate Trumpian candidate: a political neophyte famous for something entirely unrelated to politics; braggadocious claims of business acumen; scandals over abusive behaviour towards women and hypocrisy over abortion; weird and wild statements on random topics.
Visiting Georgia while Biden and Trump stayed away, Barack Obama observed: “Since the last time I was here, Mr Walker has been talking about issues that are of great importance to the people of Georgia. Like whether it’s better to be a vampire or a werewolf. This is a debate that I must confess I once had myself. When I was seven. Then I grew up.”
In the Trump era it has become a commonplace that “nothing matters”. Tuesday’s result suggests that some things do matter after all. In particular, candidate quality still matters.
This explains why, even though Republicans won every statewide election in Georgia last month, Biden beat Trump here in 2020 and Democrats won both Senate seats in 2021 thanks to Warnock and Jon Ossoff. (When primaries are thrown in, Warnock has now won six elections in just two years.)
Candidate quality is a two-way street. Walker did not just lose the election. Warnock won it, outworking and outraising his opponent, touting his work on issues such as maternal mortality, highlighting his record in helping propel Biden’s legislative agenda through the Senate and deftly choosing when to ignore Walker and when to put the boot in.
At a rally at a church in Gainesville on Sunday, Warnock asked: “How do you tell your children to tell the truth – and vote for Herschel Walker, who won’t tell you the truth about the basic facts of his life? I’m in church, so that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Warnock, 53, the first Black senator from Georgia, has now secured a full six-year term and a place among the Democrats’ rising stars. Every candidate needs a story and he has one, telling how his octogenarian mother used her “hands that once picked somebody else’s cotton” to “cast a ballot for her youngest son to be a United States senator”, adding: “Only in America is my story possible.”
He is also a powerful orator, a skill honed as senior minister of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist church, where Martin Luther King Jr used to preach, and joins faith-driven liberals such as Pete Buttigieg and the Rev William Barber in challenging the Christian right’s dominance of the moral agenda. Warnock is fond of saying: “I’m not a senator that used to be a pastor. I’m a pastor who happens to serve in the Senate.”
Even so, after Thursday it is still a case, as EM Forster put it, of two cheers for democracy rather than three. Trump arguably remains the favourite for the Republican nomination in 2024. His party has just regained a majority in the House of Representatives and is teeing up partisan investigations aplenty. In more ordinary times, it would have seemed unthinkable that a candidate such as Walker could come anywhere close to a runoff in the first place.
Which means there is no room for complacency and everything to play for. The next election could spell the rebirth or the death of Trumpism. And nowhere will do more to tip the scales towards hope or despair than Georgia.