Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Shutterstock
Now that the 2022 midterms have ended with Georgia senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff win against Herschel Walker, it’s tempting to make this last chapter just an epilogue to the story we’ve already heard: Bad Trump-selected Republican candidates lost winnable races.
There may be truth in that. Walker indeed turned out to be an epically bad candidate; he started as a universally known and mostly loved football icon who carried a Georgia Bulldog team to a national championship, and ended up a figure of mockery for his incoherent utterances and revelations about his troubled past, including allegations that he paid two women to have abortions. And without question, he had a much longer and stronger relationship with Donald Trump (dating back to his first professional football contract with the then-mogul’s New Jersey club in the 1980s) than parvenu MAGA politicians like J.D. Vance and Blake Masters.
But Republicans can’t write off Walker as just another bad idea from the 45th president. Nearly the entire Georgia GOP pined for the former Heisman Trophy winner’s candidacy and celebrated when he took the plunge. And while Trump promoted his friend’s candidacy most fervently, Walker was quickly embraced by Mitch McConnell and ultimately by Trump’s bitter intraparty enemy Governor Brian Kemp, who was omnipresent in ads boosting him during the runoff. And unsettling as he undoubtedly was to some Georgia Republican voters, the GOP didn’t have any trouble soundly winning every other statewide race in November, including Governor Kemp’s shockingly large victory over the very estimable Stacey Abrams.
So Herschel Walker didn’t just lose a winnable race; Raphael Warnock won a losable race, and he deserves some real credit for it.
Indeed, it might have been a more difficult race than Warnock’s remarkable runoff win last year. For one thing, he didn’t have a presidential ticket alongside him to drive turnout. For another, Trump, whose campaigning in the 2021 runoff contest palpably hurt the GOP by discouraging confidence in the state’s election system, stayed away from Georgia after a disastrous showing by most of his endorsees in the primary. And Democrats didn’t need Warnock to win to maintain control of the Senate this time around. But his victory did consummate their unlikely quest to expand their Senate caucus (now at 51 senators) in a midterm election.
Yet Warnock went the extra mile to end the cycle on a positive note for Democrats in Georgia and across the nation. He and his campaign pulled out the stops in an abbreviated in-person early-voting period, increasing the Black percentage of early voters from 29 percent to 32 percent, and leaving Republicans needing a near impossible landslide on Election Day – which they did not secure. Indeed, while Walker increased his percentage of the vote in bright-red rural and exurban North Georgia (a.k.a., Marjorie Taylor Greene Country), turnout in these areas dropped more than enough to offset those gains.
Warnock also turned out to be an extraordinary fundraiser, early and late. Most crucially, he raised $52 million after the November general election, in comparison to Walker’s $21 million. Thus, he was able to expose a lot of eyeballs to his blunt but hardly over-the-top ads showing Republican and independent voters expressing amazement at Herschel’s weird talk and revulsion at his compulsive lies and evasions. He also out-campaigned Walker on the stump, in no small part because the Republican had to be carefully managed to avoid gaffes or difficult questions. As in 2020 and 2021, Warnock rebutted claims of radicalism with his easy manner (his best-known ads then and now showed him walking his dog and dismissing attacks as he threw away poop) and a pastor’s facility with the Christian language beloved of many Georgians (despite conservative Evangelical attacks on him and all other religious progressives as not really Christian).
After three solid years of constant campaigning, Warnock has finally earned a full Senate term. His political legacy is well established. His more significant legacy as the heir to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church is a bit less secure. As my colleague Zak Cheney-Rice recently wrote:
People doing this work don’t usually expand it; it often shrinks them. When [Warnock] chose to make Capitol Hill his ministry, it suggested that either he really believes the path to American salvation still runs through partisan politics and Congress, or acting like it does is the best we can hope for.
Warnock now has the chance to do something in the U.S. political arena beyond surviving. And Walker will probably be dropped by Republicans like the hot mess he turned out to be.