U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (Photo by Riley Bunch/GPB)

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock has defeated his Republican opponent Herschel Walker, as strong runoff election day turnout Tuesday was not enough to overcome a wave of record-setting early voting numbers from Democrats.

Warnock led with more than 50% of the vote around 10:30 p.m. with most of the ballots left to be counted in Democratic strongholds.

Warnock will now serve a full six years in the U.S. Senate. He earned the seat after finishing in the top two in a November 2020 special election, besting Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a Jan. 2021 runoff, then coasting in the 2022 Democratic primary and, four weeks ago, narrowly missing an outright win in the general election.

Warnock campaigned as a moderate willing to work across the aisle with Republican colleagues, often joking he would do whatever it took as long as it helped Georgians, including working with people like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

The pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta also regularly touted legislation he sponsored, including lowering the cost of insulin and other measures focused on health care.

Despite avoiding mention of his Republican opponent early in the midterm election, Warnock’s final message to voters was clear: Herschel Walker is not qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“I’m not talking about his humanity,” Warnock said Tuesday. “I’m talking about his fitness to serve. Georgia’s better than that.”

Walker, a former University of Georgia football star and Heisman Trophy winner was backed by former President Donald Trump. He ran a campaign heavily focused on far-right cultural issues that included anti-transgender rhetoric and railing against so-called “critical race theory.”

The first-time candidate — who lived in Texas for many years before running for office in Georgia — campaigned in the shadow of his past. Throughout the election cycle, there were constant reports about alleged domestic violence against women and lies about his personal and professional achievements.

In a fitting way to end his campaign, Walker’s election night party was held at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. By 8 p.m., a steady crowd of his supporters filed into the landmark and snacked on a Chick-fil-A buffet.

Big names in the room included Loeffler and Georgia’s new lieutenant governor-elect, Burt Jones — but not Gov. Brian Kemp, who nominally supported Walker’s campaign in the runoff but largely kept his distance..

At around 8:30 p.m., cheers erupted as a batch of votes being counted pushed the Republican just points ahead.

But the enthusiasm didn’t last long. Democratic strongholds DeKalb and Cobb County were among the later counties to upload results, taking what momentarily appeared to be yet another nail-biter of a finish to a more comfortable victory for Warnock.

Just a few blocks away at the Marriott Marquis, Warnock’s watch party was high energy throughout the night, with music ranging from gospel to the “Wobble” and featured upbeat cheers as CNN reported on the latest batches of votes reported for their candidate.

Even before the final results were certified, political operatives and pundits weighed in on the successes and failures of the respective campaigns.

Jim Hobart, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, said Walker’s focus on the older, whiter party base in a battleground state led to his defeat, calling it “wrongheaded” compared to more resounding victories by Republicans like Gov. Brian Kemp.

“For reasons known only to Walker and his team, they doubled down on this base-only strategy in the runoff, and it failed again,” Hobart said. “A candidate with unprecedented baggage coupled with a base-only strategy in a swing state is why Walker managed to be not just the only Republican statewide candidate to lose in Georgia this cycle, but one who lost twice.”

A SPRINT TO THE FINISH

After Republicans overhauled Georgia election laws in 2021, the runoff period was shortened from nine weeks to four weeks, drastically cutting down available time for in-person early voting and absentee-by-mail balloting.

Warnock and other Democrats successfully sued to reverse a decision by the state to prevent counties from holding optional early voting the Saturday after Thanksgiving, citing a state law dealing with voting after state holidays.

Nearly 160,000 Georgians, primarily in large, Democratic-leaning areas cast ballots the weekend before mandatory statewide voting began. Early analysis of election results shows Warnock enjoyed stronger early voting support in the runoff than the general election despite the abbreviated timeline.

But despite high early voting numbers, both candidates urged supporters to take to the polls until the last minute.

“I know that it’s been a long journey, I know; this is my fifth time,” Warnock told a group of enthusiastic volunteers at a canvass kickoff in Norcross on runoff election day.

“This is the fifth time my name has been on the ballot,” he said. “So I am fully acquainted with ‘tired.’ But let me tell you my definition of tired this morning: having to be represented by Herschel Walker for six years. That, my friends, will be exhausting.”

Twenty miles or so away this morning, Walker greeted supporters at the Marietta Diner and told reporters he was confident that he’d pull out a victory.

“I feel very good about the outcome,” he told reporters. “I think the early vote was good. I think we’re going to win this election.”

But unlike Walker’s legendary time at the University of Georgia, the numbers in this election were not on his side.

This story comes to Intown/Reporter through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Riley Bunch | GPB

Riley Bunch is a public policy reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting, covering the intersection of government and daily life. Bunch has won awards for both her journalism and photography during her time...

Stephen Fowler | GPB

Stephen Fowler is an award-winning reporter and photographer for GPB News covering state and local politics.