5 election night takeaways from Georgia’s Senate runoff

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock — including Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee — celebrate Warnock's win at an election night watch party on Dec. 6, 2022. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Herschel Walker after a grueling runoff campaign has solidified Georgia’s position as one of the country’s premier battleground states. Warnock’s win also elevates Georgia’s junior senator as a rising star in the Democratic Party and underscores doubts about former President Trump’s lasting mark on the GOP, given his poor track record in the midterms.

Here’s what Tuesday night’s results say about the candidates, the parties, the voters, one former president and the ever-growing political clout of the Peach State.

1. Warnock’s campaign cobbled together a winning coalition of voters in an otherwise rough year for Georgia Democrats.

Warnock’s campaign relentlessly engaged young people and voters of color and energized liberals. But Warnock’s campaign again and again emphasized the senator’s bipartisan bonafides, directly appealing to independents and Republicans who voted for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in November.

The campaign took advantage of the opening created by all of their opponent’s controversies and personal baggage to court moderates, while also rallying base voters in every corner of the state.

In the runoff, Warnock improved his margin in 148 of 159 Georgia counties.

Warnock won re-election against a deeply flawed candidate. He won in 2021 amid swift backlash to Donald Trump and the former president’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election. Will this coalition stay together if factors like those are not in play?

2. As the finger-pointing starts, some Republicans blame Trump.

Walker was the only statewide Republican to fall in Georgia this year. Trump urged the retired football star to get in the race and the former president’s endorsement helped him rocket through the May primary.

Many Republicans believe any other GOP candidate would have defeated Warnock, given the strong performance of every other Georgia Republican.

Trump’s abysmal track record in the midterms, where the bulk of his preferred candidates in battleground states lost, is now casting doubt even among some Republicans about whether the former president should still play a role in the party.

Trump unsuccessfully tried to oust Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the GOP primary. In the end, they prevailed with wide margins.

The next question is would Trump win a GOP presidential primary in Georgia? And if he won the nomination, is Georgia winnable in November 2024 for Republicans?

3. Warnock’s star is on the rise.

Georgia’s Senate runoff showed that candidates do matter.

Warnock has now won five elections in roughly two years. He’s built a national brand with so much time in the political spotlight and cut an appealing profile as a reverend able to both excite the party’s base and attract a broad coalition of supporters.

After Democrat Stacey Abrams’ two losses for Georgia governor, Warnock may now be the face of Democrats in Georgia — and to some extent, nationwide.

Walker meanwhile tried to lean on his position as a revered football player to deflect a string of controversies. But it was not enough to overcome his personal baggage, litany of false claims and light grasp of policy as a candidate with no political experience.

4. Georgia is purple.

If there were any doubts about whether Democrats’ victories in Georgia last cycle were a fluke or a sign of a new era in the state’s politics, Warnock’s runoff victory proved that Democrats are coming to play and win.

Metro Atlanta’s suburbs shifted even further toward Democrats and the party proved they could harness their organizing skills to activate voters in previously overlooked communities.

While Georgia may not be solidly red, it’s not blue either. With the exception of Warnock, every other statewide Democrat lost this year. Warnock only won by a couple of percentage points. Despite Walker’s serious scandals, more than 1.7 million Georgia voters still cast their ballots for him. The state remains incredibly divided.

5. Georgia’s position at the center of the political universe is here to stay.

With seemingly endless nail-biter elections in Georgia, the nation’s eyes have been trained on this state for months now. Tuesday night’s results have solidified Georgia’s prominence for 2024 and beyond.

Kemp and Warnock are attracting national buzz. The state is very much in play for both parties, even as its demographics shift. Democrats are moving to add Georgia to their lineup of early nominating states in the next round of presidential primaries.

Though there might be a respite from mailers and TV advertisements for the next few months, Georgia’s role in shaping national politics is just beginning.