ATLANTA — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will meet in a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia after neither reached the general election majority required under state law, ensuring an expensive, bitter fight that could still determine which party controls the Senate going forward.
It will be the second runoff for Warnock, who first won his seat in a Jan. 5, 2021, special election runoff alongside Democrat Jon Ossoff's victory in a concurrent Senate runoff. Together, the Georgia seats gave Democrats the narrow majority they are now defending.
Whether Georgia becomes a winner-take-all for Senate control a second time will depend on the outcomes of other contests that are still pending, with Arizona and Nevada the two mostly closely watched because Republicans are trying to oust Democratic incumbents.
Walker immediately sought to play up the possibility that Georgia will tilt the chamber one way or the other.
“Control of the Senate is likely at stake,” Walker's campaign wrote in a fundraising push Wednesday afternoon. “We don't have a moment to waste.”
Warnock acknowledged the likelihood of a runoff in the wee hours of Wednesday morning as he urged the supporters who remained at his election night party to gird themselves for more.
“I understand that at this late hour you may be a little tired, but whether it’s later tonight or tomorrow or four weeks from now, we will hear from the people of Georgia,” the senator said.
Regardless of the partisan balance on Capitol Hill, Round 2 of Warnock vs. Walker will test again whether voters are more concerned about the economy under Democratic control of Washington or the Republican candidate’s rocky past, from Walker's exaggerations of his business and personal achievements to allegations of violence against his family and accusations that he paid for the abortions of two women he dated despite his public support for a national abortion ban.
Walker has tried throughout the general election campaign to make the choice a referendum on national Democrats, caricaturing Warnock as a yes-man for President Joe Biden amid sustained inflation. The former college and professional football star campaigns as a cultural and fiscal conservative but has offered few policy specifics.
Warnock, in turn, has distanced himself from Biden. The senator styles himself as a pragmatist in a partisan era. He’s touted deals with Republicans on infrastructure, agriculture and other matters, while emphasizing measures he sponsored to cap insulin and other drug prices for Medicare recipients. Warnock also framed Walker, a celebrity athlete making his first bid for public office, as unqualified and unfit for high office.
The four-week sprint also could lure former President Donald Trump into the fray. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump held rallies in several battleground states, injecting himself back into the headlines, recycling his false claims that the 2020 loss was fraudulent and reminding voters of his continuing rivalry with Biden.
Walker, a sports icon making is first bid for public office, is a close friend of Trump's and got into the race at the former president's urging, but the 60-year-old candidate has not campaigned with Trump thus far, saying he wants to win on his own.
Much of the runoff's framing remains up in the air as long as other results are pending. If Democrats hold Arizona and Nevada to keep their majority even without Georgia, Warnock might have an easier time making the contest a localized choice between himself and Walker. But if the Senate hangs in the balance, Walker might more easily put Warnock on the defensive and force the senator to discuss the national implications that he has mostly avoided for months.
Returns in other Georgia races reveal the distinction between those two scenarios. By trailing Warnock in the first round, Walker ran considerably behind Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who was reelected comfortably despite a strong challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams. That suggests that plenty of Georgia voters, including some Republicans, backed Kemp but were unwilling to vote for Walker, either backing Warnock, voting for the Libertarian or skipping the Senate contest altogether.