What Warnock's runoff win means for his future and Georgia as a battleground state

"He is a force," said one national GOP strategist.

December 8, 2022, 7:22 PM

Sen. Raphael Warnock's reelection in Georgia's runoff on Tuesday clinched a 51st seat for his party, cemented battleground status for his home state and kick-started discussion about how he succeeded this year unlike any other Georgia Democrats.

After Warnock defeated Republican rival Herschel Walker on Tuesday night, ABC News spoke with operatives and local experts about how Warnock's win changes his career and politics in Georgia, a historically red state that began lightening to blue with President Joe Biden's win in November 2020.

Warnock and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff followed Biden's victory by winning their seats in runoff races in January 2021. But the statewide ticket suffered near-total losses in November's midterms. In Stacey Abrams' rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp, whom she almost beat in 2018 -- in what was then the best performance by a Democrat in Georgia in 20 years -- she lost by more than 7 points.

Warnock was different, though.

The noted Atlanta reverend has been campaigning virtually nonstop for more than two years. Experts said he executed a playbook reliant on a diverse coalition of voters of all races, ages and geographic areas -- emphasizing both base turnout and persuasion of the state's moderates and independents, who have now four times rejected Trump and Trump-like candidates, including Walker.

Even Republicans said Warnock ran a strong campaign, admitting that some underestimated his appeal in one of the tightest states in the country.

"You have to give credit to Warnock. He's a really talented candidate. And having worked against him in the past political cycle, there were some Republicans who underestimated him at the time. He didn't have a political background. He was coming from an unusual perch to run for office. And he is a force," said one national GOP strategist working on Senate races.

The tale of two campaign strategies

In the 28-day sprint from November's general election to the runoff, Warnock stressed a "character"-based contrast with Walker, a football legend in Georgia, as he pushed to appeal to voters outside the Democratic base, hoping to build on his performance last month when he outran Abrams as Walker under-ran Kemp.

As part of his strategy, Warnock sought to win over a small but influential group of "split-ticket" supporters who could chose both him and Kemp.

He established field operations in conservative areas, overwhelmingly outperformed Walker in fundraising -- allowing him to increase his advertising spending -- and as his opponent was noticeably absent from the campaign trail, he organized a number of political events.

Walker changed very little about his approach during the runoff cycle. His stump speeches largely remained the same at each campaign stop, focusing little on policy and more on conservative-friendly talking points and social issues, including railing against transgender youth in sports.

Additionally, Walker's campaign staffers kept the press at a distance, refusing for months to allow reporters to ask him questions aside from appearances with conservative-friendly outlets -- like Fox News' opinion programs -- where Walker would more often than not be joined by a Republican senator like Lindsey Graham.

As time started dwindling down toward Election Day, it became increasingly clear that Walker and his team would be sticking to that plan. His bus stops were almost solely in outdoor parking lots as the campaign fixated on crowd size. While his appearances drew supporters, the format also prevented him from one-on-one and more intimate interactions with voters.

Unlike Warnock's approach to persuasion, Walker -- consistently dogged by attacks by Democrats and some Republicans that he was unfit for office -- stuck close to his base while dismissing various personal controversies as political smears. Over a five-day stretch during the week of Thanksgiving, he made no public appearances at all.

In contrast, Warnock stayed busy on the campaign trail, hosting canvassing launches and small meet-and-greets along with rallies. On Sundays, he continued to preach from Martin Luther King Jr.'s old church.

In response to Walker's barrage of attacks trying to closely tie him to President Joe Biden, whom Warnock has continually backed in the Senate, Warnock told Georgians he was eager to work across the aisle.

PHOTO: Georgia Democratic Senate candidate U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during an election night watch party, Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta.
Georgia Democratic Senate candidate U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during an election night watch party, Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

"I am the 18th most bipartisan senator in the Senate. Period. Now I know that's an inconvenient fact for Mr. Walker. We also know that he's allergic to facts, even the facts about his own life," Warnock told ABC News' Rachel Scott on the final day of his campaign.

His strategy this year changed after his first campaign, adapting to the political environment, experts said. In his first runoff victory, as former President Donald Trump railed against election security and with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, Democrats created an expansive turnout operation with Abrams and other activists at the helm.

His strategy this year also differed from the comeback bid by Abrams, the former state lawmaker turned prominent voting rights advocate.

While Warnock focused heavily on nontraditional Democratic voters, Abrams worked intensely to drive up base turnout and, according to strategists, shunned outside help.

And while Walker grappled with a string of scandals including denying two claims that he paid for women's abortions, Republicans struggled to define Warnock with similar personal baggage beyond issues with a contentious divorce.

"Warnock has done nothing but stay in Georgia and campaign in Georgia," said state Democratic strategist and informal Warnock adviser David Brand.

"He's in the pulpit every Sunday. He's touching people every Sunday, he's talking to people every Sunday," Brand said.

Georgia as a permanent purple state?

Warnock's runoff win showed that the 2020 and 2021 results weren't flukes, solidifying Georgia as a swing state and creating cautious optimism for Democrats even as they said they can't rest on their laurels.

"Our political map cannot be reduced to primary colors of red or blue. That's why our work takes time. It takes investment and it requires folks to understand that focusing on deep engagement inside but also outside of the metro areas in Georgia is critical to our work," said Kendra Cotton, CEO of the New Georgia Project and New Project Action Fund.

Both Republicans and Democrats said they understand that in a divided state like Georgia, grassroots organizing is becoming increasingly more important. With a shortened runoff cycle, and consequently limited early voting period, Democrats invested more in voter mobilization programs.

On top of Warnock's own operation, outside groups also pitched in. Majority Forward and the America Votes coalition, associated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's Senate Majority political action committee, spent more than $11 million to turn out voters before the runoff election, knocking on more than 4 millions doors.

The efforts helped lead to record-breaking early voting turnout records in important Democratic strongholds.

Republicans, too, worked hard to drive up turnout. Kemp worked to develop his own turnout infrastructure and, after cruising to reelection, handed over his data and analytics operation to the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.

Kemp's victory this year -- as well as Republican wins in every other race for statewide office in Georgia -- has the GOP pouring cold water on speculation over the extent of the state's competitiveness.

"I've never bought into the idea that we're a purple state. I've always said it's more 2024, 2026 when we're really gonna see. And what I define as purple is where you have some mixed constitutional offices, that you maybe have one legislative chamber is Republican, one is Democrat. I don't think two senators at the top being Democrat technically makes it purple," Georgia conservative radio host Martha Zoller said.

PHOTO: Senator Raphael Warnock holds his two children Chloe and Caleb after he was reelected to the Senate in Atlanta, Dec. 6 2022.
Senator Raphael Warnock holds his two children Chloe and Caleb after he was reelected to the Senate in Atlanta, Dec. 6 2022.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE via Shutterstock

GOP rues Trump's influence, candidate quality

As Democrats celebrated pulling out a win in the final race of the 2022 midterms, Republicans in Georgia and in Washington who spoke with ABC News lamented Trump's sway in the race and candidate quality issues that plagued them across the country.

Trump was largely responsible for Walker winning the Republican primary and launched a public relations blitz to back Walker's entry into the race before he even announced a campaign.

The former president, though, ended up having a strained relationship with Georgia's GOP and general electorates.

Trump endorsed challengers to Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over their refusal to overturn the 2020 election results only to see his chosen candidates get trounced. And while his endorsement helped push Walker to an easy primary win earlier this year, Walker ended up getting 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp in November and saw his share of the vote stay largely stagnant from last month to the runoff.

"Georgia seems to be in a place where they are just done with Trump and done with anyone who has any affiliation with Trump," said the national GOP strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid. "Unfortunately for us, great for a Kemp or a Raffensperger or whatever, but the difference is pretty stark."

The national strategist said that Walker's football legacy helped partially inoculate him from late attacks from Warnock over his personal controversies and habit for odd remarks on the campaign trail, such as a lengthy discussion of werewolves and vampires. But the operative conceded that Walker's comments distracted from GOP attack lines on high inflation and crime.

"I think that he was unprepared for the race, I think that he either didn't have or wasn't taking the best advice," said Zoller. "For those swing voters, those kinds of things would make an impact on how they would decide to vote."

Where does Warnock go from here?

No sooner had Warnock won than speculation began among strategists and media personalities over his future in politics.

Warnock, who says he's "not a senator who used to be a pastor" but that voters instead "sent a pastor to the Senate," could very well seek to stay in the upper chamber for the rest of his political career.

But should he seek other offices, either in Atlanta or on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats indicated he could have a pathway for promotions.

"He has proven himself to be a superstar," said Brand. "Whether it should be vice president, president or just to be a power within the Senate. I think the sky's the limit."

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