Tonight, Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won re-election to the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican Herschel Walker. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a peak moment for American democracy or its nadir.
First, the good news. Walker is one of the worst political candidates in modern political history—and tonight, thankfully, he lost.
Possessing no experience in government or politics, he provided voters with scant evidence that he even understood the responsibilities of the job he sought. Indeed, in a brief interview with Politico this week, Walker appeared to suggest that his victory would ensure Republican control of the “House.” Walker was, of course, running for the Senate, and control of that body had already been determined.
Indeed, as I wrote in September, “Walker isn’t simply clueless about the issues he would have to tackle were he to be elected. He holds childlike views and struggles to communicate in even a semi-coherent manner.” Last month, he delivered an extended soliloquy on why he’d prefer to be a werewolf rather than a vampire (Editor’s note: Neither werewolves nor vampires are real). This summer, he complained that China was sending “bad air” to the United States, which supplanted our “good air.”
His campaign has been dogged by repeated scandals, including Walker’s constant lies and exaggerations about his business, academic, and law enforcement experience. Though he is nominally pro-life, he’s repeatedly been accused of paying for past girlfriends’ abortions—and, more disturbingly, threatening the life of his ex-wife. To an extent rarely before seen in national politics, legitimate questions were raised about Walker’s mental acuity—and if the former football star’s campaign trail pronouncements were any indication, the answers were not good.
Walker’s sole claim to public renown is that, 42 years ago, as running back for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, he won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. That, plus an endorsement by Donald Trump, was enough to propel Walker to a Senate nomination in the modern Republican Party. Without his gridiron heroics, Walker would be considered a laughable candidate for political office. Truth be told, even with that experience, he’s a laughable candidate—and Georgia voters figured that out.
Two years after Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win Georgia’s electoral votes since 1992—and Democrats won both Senate seats—Republicans practically ran the table in the state.
Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams for re-election by 7.5 percentage points. In every other statewide race, Republican candidates won handily—with the closest margin, 5 points. Walker is the glaring exception. He won only 48.5 percent of the vote in the first Senate round—putting him around 5 points south of Kemp’s total.
Tonight, at the time this article was published, The New York Times estimated Warnock would ultimately win by 2.8 points. In November, slightly more than 200,000 voters who marked a ballot for Kemp couldn’t do the same for Walker. This data suggests that even in an era of intense political polarization when tribal and partisan identification seems to trump all other considerations, candidate quality in Georgia still mattered—and a manifestly unqualified politician was rejected precisely because he was unqualified.
Now, here’s the bad news, 1,908,442 Georgians voted for Walker in the first round of voting, and, so far, more than 1.6 million have voted for him this time.
This is, of course, not a bipartisan problem: according to November exit polls, approximately 94 percent of Republicans cast a ballot for Walker (by a more than ten-point margin, independents supported Warnock). One can imagine the numbers for Tuesday’s runoffs are similar.
Indeed, while American democracy undoubtedly dodged a bullet in 2022—as election-denying candidates with no qualification for office lost across the board—this election was far too close for comfort.
In Arizona, Republican Kari Lake was not only a virulent election denier lacking so much as a whiff of political experience, but she mocked Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, after he was attacked by a hammer-wielding assailant. She lost her bid for governor, but by less than 18,000 votes. Her ticket mate Blake Masters fared worse, which perhaps could come as a little surprise since he ran a campaign ad that looked like an outtake from a serial killer manifesto, but he still received a hair under 1.2 million votes.
At least in Pennsylvania, voters rejected the election-denying, abortion-criminalizing Christian nationalist Doug Mastriano by nearly 15 points, but in far too many races, the margin of victory suggests that a small segment of the population saved the country from candidates who have no business holding public office. Lest we forget, in 2016, an unqualified candidate can lose the popular vote by 3 million votes… and still get elected president.
Before Trump ran for office, it’s hard to imagine candidates as unskilled and dangerous as Walker, Lake, Masters or Mastriano could win their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate or governor. But in the modern GOP, where competence and experience have become foreign, even toxic concepts, the bar for political entry has been lowered to the floor.
Herschel Walker deserved to lose, but what does it say about the Republican Party that so many of the party’s voters were willing to support a candidate who had no business being a U.S. Senator—no less running for the office? American democracy survived 2022, but Walker’s narrow defeat is a disquieting reminder that we’re hardly out of the woods yet.