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Raphael Warnock beats Herschel Walker to end the last Senate race of 2022

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The final race of the 2022 midterms is over. Incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock from Georgia has defeated his opponent, Republican Herschel Walker. The victory gives Democrats a crucial 51-49 advantage in the U.S. Senate and solidifies Georgia's status as a political battleground state. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler joins us now to talk about the results and their consequences. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So a whole lot of money went into this race and lots of national attention. Remind us how we got here.

FOWLER: So Raphael Warnock won a special election in a runoff in January, 2021, and has used that time in office so far to focus on legislation lowering health care costs. And he really hammered home this idea that he's a bipartisan moderate willing to do whatever it takes to help Georgians, even working across the aisle with the Republicans at a time where that's not really happening a lot. Here's a snippet of Warnock's victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: I am Georgia.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

WARNOCK: I am an example and an iteration of its history...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

WARNOCK: ...Of its pain and its promise of the brutality and the possibility.

FOWLER: Now, Walker, on the other hand, spent most of his campaign dodging controversies about his past, including serious allegations of domestic violence, fabricating his past and personal achievements, and, maybe most importantly, allegedly pressuring multiple ex-girlfriends to have abortions despite his public stance opposing abortion. And on the policy front, he really stuck to a far-right agenda that catered more to the GOP base than a diverse swing state.

MARTIN: So how did Warnock pull this off?

FOWLER: Well, a lot of people voted and especially voted early in person. Democrats took full advantage of extra optional days of early voting offered in some of the larger counties, particularly the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which was only an option after Warnock's campaign actually sued the state to make it happen. There was actually more turnout than you would expect for an early December race in a runoff. About 3.5 million people voted.

But the difference is, across the board, Warnock lost Republican counties by a little bit less than November and won urban and suburban counties by a little more than he did in November. Walker also continued to underperform incumbent Governor Brian Kemp's November margins in Republican areas that were just turned off by his campaign. And remember, Georgia is an outlier by holding these types of runoffs when no candidate in a general election gets above 50%. So things were really unpredictable heading into Election Day from a turnout perspective.

MARTIN: Yeah. So Democrats have not only retained control of the U.S. Senate, they actually have now picked up a seat. What does Warnock's victory mean for the next two years in Congress?

FOWLER: Well, it's a big deal to Democrats. In some ways, it's even a bigger deal than those 2021 runoffs that got the Senate to 50-50. For starters, no more power sharing on committees, which has limited some of the action Democrats could take the last two years. It also somewhat neuters the impact of fellow Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, moderates who sometimes serve as roadblocks to President Biden's agenda.

And, Rachel, because it's always election season, especially here in Georgia, it gives Democrats one more seat for a 2024 election map that's a little bit tougher for them. That's also keeping Georgia at the forefront of battleground status for the White House, reflected in a proposed new Democratic presidential primary calendar, which puts Georgia among some of the early states to decide the party's nominee. So at any rate, there's a lot more political and economic capital routing through the Peach State these next few years.

MARTIN: You're going to be busy. Little job security for you, Stephen. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.