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4 takeaways from the Georgia Senate runoff

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) won reelection in the Georgia runoff on Tuesday night, turning aside a challenge from Republican former football star Herschel Walker. With 94 percent of the expected vote in, Warnock leads by one percentage point. The Associated Press and Edison Research have called the race for the Democratic senator.

The result means all Senate races have been decided. With Democrats having gained one seat in the 2022 elections, they will hold a 51-49 majority come next month.

Below are some takeaways.

1. How Warnock did it

Georgia runoff elections were very favorable for Republicans until very recently. But in recent cycles, that’s been turned on its head. Warnock leads by one point right now — similar to his margin on Election Day four weeks ago — but that’s likely to grow. Similarly, Democrats in the 2020-2021 Georgia Senate runoffs overturned Election Day deficits to win both seats and take the Senate.

The reason appears to boil down to Democrats’ successful effort to turn out voters early, particularly in the Atlanta area, and the fact that turnout in blue areas was simply stronger relative to the general election.

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Georgia Senate runoff
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Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has officially defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff, giving Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Read our takeaways from the runoff election.

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One thing you’ll notice if you look at the map of the election results is that Walker often ran stronger in the state’s rural and ruby-red counties than he did four weeks ago. But Warnock ran even stronger in the metro Atlanta area and along the rural “Black Belt” further to the south, compared to Nov. 8, and turnout was stronger there.

Turnout everywhere was very high for a runoff, and it looks like it will end up around 90 percent of the total vote on Election Day. But it was higher in blue counties, and it dropped the most in the most conservative part of the state, north Georgia.

How much that owes to Democrats’ efforts — versus, say, Republicans running a lackluster candidate who didn’t have a popular governor like Brian Kemp alongside him on the ballot — is difficult to know.

But following the 2020-2021 results, it looks like much less of a fluke. And it’s probably no coincidence that Republicans are beginning to fret publicly about former president Donald Trump’s past attacks on mail voting.

2. From bad to worse for Trump 2022

Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker on Dec. 6 said his campaign was the “best thing” he had done after losing to Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). (Video: The Washington Post)

The runoff was but one race. But it reinforced everything we already knew about Trump and the 2022 election, which is that the former president and Trump-y candidates cost the GOP — including the Senate majority.

November had already made this evident in Georgia: Walker was the one statewide GOP candidate who didn’t win on Election Day, with the other eight winning by an average of more than seven points. (Most of the others easily turned aside Trump-backed primary challengers earlier this year.)

Walker now becomes the fourth Trump-backed candidate to lose a very winnable Senate race, next to Arizona’s Blake Masters, Nevada’s Adam Laxalt and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. Masters also performed worse than any other statewide Arizona Republican, while Laxalt lost despite a Republican winning the governor’s race. Oz did better than the GOP gubernatorial candidate but still lost a battleground state. (And that list doesn’t include New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc, whom Trump did not back in the primary but who ran a very Trump-y campaign and lost, even as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu was cruising to reelection.)

In the end, candidates Trump backed in the primary lost in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, while winning in another swing state, North Carolina. They also won in Ohio, but it was a big night for Ohio Republicans generally, and Senate candidate J.D. Vance far underperformed other Republicans.

We can’t say for certain that other, better candidates would have won more of these races. But these candidates were unpopular and cost the GOP votes — as both these election results and those in the House make clear.

And Georgia was arguably the most conclusive missed opportunity in the battle for the Senate, given how well all of these other, non-MAGA Republicans did.

In a way, the fact that Georgia held its runoff four weeks after Election Day was tailor-made to remind people of Trump’s drag on the political prospects of his party. What a time to launch your 2024 campaign.

3. What it means for the Senate

Unlike the 2020-2021 Georgia runoffs, this election didn’t decide the Senate majority. But it did assure that Democrats have a more literal majority of the chamber, 51-49, rather than their current version with 50 plus Vice President Harris as the tiebreaker.

And that matters for a few reasons, as we wrote earlier Tuesday.

The first is that it’s easier to move legislation, both because Democrats no longer need complete party unanimity (see: Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) and because they will face fewer procedural hurdles within the Senate’s various committees. One place where this could particularly matter is on confirming judges more quickly.

The second is that it ensures Democrats will keep the majority even if there is a vacancy or a party switch over the next two years, which history suggests is no small consideration.

The third is that it improves their chances in what should be a tough 2024. The map is exceedingly difficult for Democrats, with the eight most competitive seats all being ones Democrats are defending — at least to start out with. Without Georgia, they wouldn’t have been able to lose any of them; now, they’ll have at least a little bit of a buffer.

4. The full picture of the 2022 election

Now that the 2022 election is officially and finally over, it’s worth a tale of the tape.

This was more or less a status-quo election. That’s unusual for midterms, in which the president’s party usually loses substantial ground. In the end:

  • Democrats gained a net of one Senate seat and two governor’s mansions. While we have seen a handful of status-quo midterm elections over the past 100 years, it’s the first time since 1934 that the president’s party has managed to gain both Senate and governor’s seats in a midterm.
  • Republicans gained a net of nine House seats, which was enough to reclaim the House. On average, over the past century, the opposition party gained nearly 30 seats in the midterms, and it has gained 25 seats in elections since 1994.
  • When it comes to state legislatures, Democrats gained a net of four chambers — two in Michigan and one each in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
  • Combining races for governor and state legislature, Republicans now fully control 22 states, and Democrats control 17. The split before this election was 23-14 in favor of the GOP.

All told, a close election — but a good one for Democrats on the margins and compared with the historical pattern.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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