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How did Warnock beat Walker – and what difference will it make?

Georgia voters turned out in large numbers to vote in the U.S. Senate runoff on Tuesday, propelling incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock to a narrow victory over Republican Herschel Walker.

Back in the November general election, Republicans claimed a clean sweep of statewide constitutional offices, from the governor down to agriculture commissioner. But the December runoff for the Senate seat reversed that trend, with Warnock ultimately winning by a narrow margin of about 97,000 votes.

Political scientists pointed to several factors that helped Warnock buck the statewide tilt toward the GOP.

One was the relative weakness of Republican challenger Herschel Walker’s candidacy. Walker’s campaign was dogged by a number of serious character allegations, including that he paid for his ex-girlfriends’ abortions despite his public pro-life stance and that he had been violent toward his ex-wife.

“Candidate quality still matters,” said Pearl Dowe, an African American studies and political science professor at Emory University.

Dowe said former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of political neophyte Walker – and some Georgia voters’ resistance to Trump’s politics – played a role in the “tepid” support of Republicans for Walker.

Warnock effectively pitched his message to more moderate voters in Georgia, allowing him to pick up crucial votes, Dowe said.

“The reasons we got a different result yesterday [from the November general elections] is because Republicans nominated Herschel Walker as their senatorial candidate,” agreed University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Bullock said Warnock’s runoff victory was built on small, piece-by-piece gains across the state. He pointed to Baldwin County, home of Milledgeville and Georgia College and State University. Back in November, Walker bested Warnock by 89 votes in Baldwin. But this time around, Warnock beat Walker by 153 votes, effectively flipping the county.

Baldwin is one of five counties that Warnock flipped from red to blue between November and December, Bullock said.

One big difference between the November race and the December runoff was the absence of a thirdparty candidate that could siphon away crucial votes. Back in November, Libertarian Chase Oliver pulled about 2% of the vote away from the two mainstream candidates.

This time around, voters had only two choices: Walker or Warnock. While it’s difficult to track exactly what happened to the people who voted for Oliver in November, it’s clear that Warnock benefited from the narrowed field, Bullock said.

Walker also did not perform as well in December as he did in November in solidly red counties, Bullock added, pointing to Forsyth County as one example. While Walker won both times, he pulled around 66,000 votes in November, dropping down to only around 58,000 votes in December. Such small declines added up across the state, Bullock said.

After the November results rolled in, it became clear that no matter what happened in the Peach State, Republicans would not be able to control the Senate in Washington. That’s because going into the Georgia runoff, Democrats controlled 50 seats while Republicans had 49. Some Republicans who might have otherwise turned out to ensure party control of the Senate may have skipped this week’s vote, Bullock said.

Ultimately, the Peach State is still almost evenly divided when it comes to party politics, despite Democrats’ historic victories in the last election cycle two years ago.

“I know some Democrats were saying after 2020 that this is a blue state,” Bullock said. “Well, this isn’t a blue state. It’s probably a pink state, pink tending toward purple.”

Still, Democrats will now have a very slim – but significant – majority in the U.S. Senate: 51-49. That makes a difference in a number of areas.

“Each Senate committee will have a Democratic majority rather than having equal numbers of Democrats or Republicans,” Bullock said. “That means it will be easier for those committees to take a straight party-line vote and move forward and hold the hearings they want to, hear the witnesses they want to.”

And though 51 votes is not enough to break a filibuster, which requires 60 votes, budget bills and nominations cannot be filibustered, Bullock said. So Democrats should be able to get Senate approval for budget-related measures.

One Democrat — such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who frequently votes with Republicans – won’t be able to hold up those bills.

“The Senate really does matter,” said Dowe. “We see that a lot of the bills over the last few years that increased spending, increased support for poverty, for children, overall quality of life for low-income persons… when they reached the Senate because of the [50-50] tie many of those policies … were actually watered down.”

“Where some of the bills tend to have more emphasis on direct support for particular issues that are considered Democratic issues … you won’t see that watered down type of haggling,” said Dowe, pointing to environmental and trade regulations as examples.

But don’t expect a Democratic free-for-all in Washington. Non-budget bills are still subject to a filibuster. Also, the U.S. House of Representatives is now in Republican hands, putting a check on the Democratic Senate and President Joe Biden.

“Do you expect to see massive new things coming out of Congress?” Bullock said. “Don’t delude yourself.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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