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

Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker in the runoff for Georgia’s Senate seat this week.

ATLANTA – 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 third-party 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.

Warnock narrowly defeats Walker 

Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker Tuesday in the race for Georgia’s Senate seat.

ATLANTA – Incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock narrowly defeated Republican Herschel Walker Tuesday in a closely fought race for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat, giving Democrats a slim two-seat majority in the upper house in Washington.  

Warnock was leading Walker 51.1% to 48.8% as of 11:50 p.m. Tuesday night, with 98% of precincts reporting. The Warnock victory in the final contest of the 2022 election cycle gave Democrats 51 seats in the Senate to 49 for Republicans. 

Though Warnock won around 38,000 more votes than Walker in the November general election, neither candidate earned more than 50% of the vote required by Georgia law to prevent a runoff, pushing the nationally watched race to a December rematch. 

The lengthy campaign that finally concluded Tuesday night was the most expensive race of the 2022 cycle, with outside groups and the candidates’ campaigns spending more than $401 million in the race, according to campaign-finance tracking group OpenSecrets

“It is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy: The people have spoken,” Warnock said to a jubilant crowd celebrating the victory at a downtown Atlanta hotel. 

“The people once again rose up in a multi-racial, multi-religious coalition of conscience,” Warnock said. 

“I will walk with you even as I work for you,” Warnock vowed, promising to represent all Georgians, not just those who voted for him. “I will always be a voice for Georgia.  All of Georgia.” 

Walker conceded the race on Tuesday night. 

“I’m not gonna make any excuses now because we put up one heck of a fight,” Walker told his supporters. “I want you to believe in America and continue to believe in the Constitution and believe in our elected officials.” 

“The best thing I’ve ever done in my whole entire life is run for this Senate seat right here and the reason I’m gonna say that is I had a chance to meet all you and hear what you guys feel about this country,” Walker added.

Going overtime to achieve victory wasn’t new to Warnock. The pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta first won a U.S. Senate seat in a January 2021 runoff.  

During this year’s lengthy campaign, Warnock portrayed himself as a protector of middle-class Georgians’ economic interests, touting his support for a $35-per-month cap on insulin and other drug spending caps for Medicare beneficiaries passed earlier this year. Warnock is also a strong supporter of full Medicaid expansion in Georgia as a way to bolster the state’s hospital infrastructure and improve rural health care. 

Walker, one of the most storied University of Georgia football players of all time, was a political neophyte when he was tapped by former President Donald Trump to run for the seat last year.

Walker sought to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and blamed the Democratic duo for high inflation and crime rates. The Republican also emphasized what he considers the problems with “woke” social policies, often telling crowds he would protect women’s sports from the participation of transgender athletes and criticizing Democrats for focusing on racism in American history.  

Abortion was one of the most important issues in the race as Georgia’s law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy took effect this fall. Warnock made his strong pro-choice position clear during the campaign, saying that “a patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government,” and that abortion rights are protected by the fundamental right to privacy.   

At one point, Walker indicated that he opposes all abortions, with no exceptions for the life of the mother or in the case of rape or incest. But during a debate this fall, he said he supports Georgia’s “heartbeat law,” which bans most abortions after about six weeks but includes exceptions for rape and incest.  

The Walker campaign was dogged by a number of serious allegations about his character. Two ex-girlfriends alleged that Walker paid for their abortions, despite his public pro-life stance.  

Warnock campaign ads highlighted Walker’s alleged violence against his ex-wife. More recently, reports surfaced that Walker received a Texas homestead tax exemption despite having voted and run for office in Georgia.  

Georgians turned out in droves to cast their ballots during the early voting period ahead of Tuesday’s runoff, with more than 1.7 million voting early during the newly shortened period. Total turnout as of Tuesday night was 3.5 million, a record for a midterm runoff in Georgia.  

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

Obama stumps for Warnock – again

ATLANTA – Former President Barack Obama returned to Atlanta Thursday for the second time in a month to press Georgians to turn out and vote for Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock one more time.  

Warnock is running against Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a closely fought runoff race for Georgia’s Senate seat. Though Warnock earned more votes than Walker during the general election last month, neither candidate passed the 50% threshold necessary to win outright. 

Democrats have pulled out all the stops to ensure that Warnock retains his Senate seat, including bringing Obama back to Atlanta to urge Georgians to turn out.  

“I know it feels like we just did this, and that’s because we did,” Obama joked with the crowd, referring to his recent appearance in Atlanta before the November general election. Back then, Obama admonished supporters not to “boo” at the mention of Walker’s name but to vote. He emphasized the same message Thursday. 

The former president also touted Democratic successes in Washington over the past two years as reasons Georgians should turn out for Warnock, arguing the incumbent Democrat would continue to fight for middle-class Americans. 

“Democrats took office [in 2021] … and they were eventually able to translate that into people’s lives being better in concrete ways,” Obama said, pointing to low unemployment rates despite the COVID pandemic, the 2021 infrastructure bill, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act that capped some health-care costs, and a recently passed gun safety law. 

“An extra senator gives the Democrats more breathing room on important bills.  It prevents one person from holding up everything,” Obama said about the stakes in next week’s runoff. “You [Georgians] have the power to determine the course of this country.”  

Beyond policy, Obama reinforced Warnock’s message that the incumbent Democrat is better suited in terms of character and competence to represent Georgia. Obama tied Warnock’s work in the Senate to the career of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, a civil rights icon.  

Warnock, who introduced the former president, also adopted a jocular tone with his assembled supporters.  

“You must know that I want to work for you. … This is the fifth time my name has been on the ballot in less than two years for the same doggone job,” Warnock said to explosive cheers of “one more time” from the crowd. 

Warnock also criticized Walker’s ethics and honesty.  

“This is not about Republican and Democrat. This is not about left and right. This is about the difference between right and wrong,” Warnock said. “I believe in my soul that Georgians, Republican and Democrats … know that Georgia is better than Herschel Walker.” 

Obama isn’t the only celebrity the Democrats have called upon to give Warnock a boost.

Earlier this week, rock superstars Dave Matthews Band played at an event for Warnock supporters in Cobb County. Warnock also has made it a point to visit college campuses across the state to energize the student vote. 

Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have campaigned with Walker. Last month, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp shared a platform with Walker in Cobb County after keeping his distance during the general election campaign.

Georgians have turned out in record-setting numbers to vote in the nationally watched Senate runoff. The early voting period began last Saturday. 

So far, more than 1 million Georgians have cast ballots during the early voting period. Tuesday is Election Day.

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

New dirty dozen report highlights how Georgians have acted to protect state’s waterways 

River
The Chattahoochee River (photo: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Growing up, Linda Smith enjoyed swimming in the Canoochee River and resting on one of its white sandbars near her family home.

But by the 1990s, she and her family could no longer swim there because the water was covered with a thick, dark algal bloom – the product of runoff from Claxton Poultry, a chicken processing facility located upstream.  

Smith and her sister became amateur environmental sleuths, documenting the violations and, in 2000, filing a lawsuit against the chicken company for its violations of the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit forced the company to pay for environmental clean-up in the region. 

Smith described how the pollution of her family’s beloved swimming spot led her to become an environmental advocate this week during a press conference held to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation that, among other things, empowered American citizens to help enforce environmental laws.  

“It’s difficult for two old women who didn’t have education on this kind of thing to provide the evidence,” Smith said. She and her sister received assistance from scientists at Georgia Southern University. But they had to do much of the legwork themselves because they could not afford to hire experts.  

“[We] crept around and … took videos of what we knew were violations. … It was quite a challenge,” Smith said, noting they often had to film at night to get the evidence they needed.  

To mark the Clean Water Act’s anniversary and celebrate the efforts of everyday environmentalists like Smith, the Georgia Water Coalition this week issued a special version of its annual Dirty Dozen Report.  

While the “dirty dozen” usually refers to the worst cases of pollution in the past year in Georgia, this year the report looks at how ordinary citizens like Smith pushed forward water protection using a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue polluters.  

“There are so many stories like Linda’s where the Clean Water Act has given citizens a powerful tool to set things right,” said Joe Cook, who wrote the report for the Athens-based Georgia River Nework. “In Linda’s case and in so many other cases … citizen groups have stepped in to force state and federal agencies to actually enforce the law.”

Cook said the state has seen a flourishing of citizen-led environmental groups since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. There are at least 30 citizen-driven water protection groups around the state, whereas there were no such groups prior to the Clean Water Act. For example, Claxton Poultry provided funding for Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the Canoochee and Ogeechee Rivers, as a result of the Smiths’ lawsuit. 

“The progress that has been made since then … has been remarkable,” said Cook.  “But we still have a lot to do to make all the state’s water bodies swimmable and fishable.”  

Industrial pollution of waterways is one major concern. Some wastewater facilities use a system called the “land application system” to get rid of their pollutants. In this system, wastewater is sprayed into fields and forests so that it can soak into the ground instead of being discharged directly into a river or being sent to a wastewater treatment plan. While the land application system can be an improvement over wastewater handling systems, it still has flaws and can lead to pollution of groundwater and rivers.  

After Dalton Utilities built such a system along the Conasauga River, state and federal regulators found that the wastewater spraying was polluting groundwater and the river and sued the company. Much of the polluted wastewater came from the area’s famous carpet factories. The lawsuit resulted in a $6 million penalty in 1998 that was, at that time, the largest in the history of the Clean Water Act. Dalton Utilities also had to finance the upgrading of its sewer system.  

Despite the success of the lawsuit, the problem has not been solved in North Georgia, said Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network. A group of chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” because of their staying power have also been sprayed on the fields along the rivers for decades.  

“Today, these forever chemicals that have been linked to human health impacts can be found in the drinking water supplies downstream from Dalton,” Peck said. The city of Rome and other cities, including Gadsden, Ala., are suing Dalton Utilities and carpet companies to recoup the millions of dollars the municipalities have spent to make their drinking water safe.  

“We need to get ahold of these emerging pollutants and keep them out of our drinking water sources,” Cook said.  

This year’s Dirty Dozen report calls on Georgia policymakers to focus on protecting the Okefenokee Swamp. Alabama-based mining company Twin Pines Minerals has applied for permits to set up a mine just to the east of the swamp. Currently, the application is before Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).  

“EPD must deny permits for this risky project, and state legislators should act to permanently protect the Okefenokee,” Cook said.  

Cook also called on Georgia Power to dig up coal ash that is currently stored in unlined pits that allow for groundwater pollution. Georgia Power should move the ash to dry, lined pits that are away from water, he said. 

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

First bill of next year’s General Assembly session targets Georgia’s abortion ban  

Democratic State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, filed the first bill of the 2023 legislative session.

ATLANTA – The first bill prefiled for the 2023 legislative session takes aim at one of the hottest political topics in Georgia, a law that bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy. 

House Bill 1 (HB 1) would require the state to pay for many of the costs of having and caring for a child for mothers who would like to have had an abortion but were prohibited from doing so by the Georgia law that prohibits the procedure after fetal cardiac activity can be detected. 

Democratic state Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick of Lithonia filed the proposal last week, gaining the coveted “HB 1” designation. The bill is officially titled The Georgia Pro-Birth Accountability Act. 

Georgia’s abortion ban dates back to 2019, when the Republican-led General Assembly approved – and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed – a law that bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law, alternatively known as the Heartbeat Bill or The LIFE Act, was blocked from taking immediate effect by federal courts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade last summer opened the door for the Georgia ban to take effect. Pro-choice groups challenged the law in the state courts, and the matter is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court. 

Last week, the high court said the law could remain in effect while the case is pending.  

House Bill 1 is based on the assumption that the abortion ban will remain in effect. The proposal requires the state to cover a wide range of expenses for mothers who otherwise would have had abortions if not for the ban. 

Those expenses include medical, legal, and psychological expenses related to the pregnancy and postpartum period. The bill also requires the state to provide financial and food assistance to the woman as well as her child until the child is 18. If the mother is disabled due to the pregnancy, or if the child is born with a disability, the state would also cover those costs. 

The legislation would require the state to pay child support to an unmarried woman if the father cannot or will not pay child support. It also would require the state to fund an IRS 529 savings trust that would help pay for the child’s higher education.  

Women would be able to qualify for the program by filing an affidavit with the state’s Department of Human Services stating that they would have had an abortion if not for the Georgia ban on abortions.  

Kendrick said she filed the bill to make a point, although she is aware it has little chance of success in the state House next year. 

“If we want to say we are a pro-life state, then we need to put our money where our mouth is, that means childcare, that means the mother’s expenses. That means helping raise the child from birth to age 18 and not just caring about the nine months that they’re in the womb,” Kendrick said. “We’ll see where the priorities lie, because if we do have a surplus, if we continue to have one, there’s no reason that we can’t fund this.”  

Kendrick said she requested a fiscal analysis of how much the proposal would cost and will make that information public when she receives it.

“This is essentially a bill to see who is going to stand up on those principles and … who is, as I suspect, really just trying to control women’s reproductive rights.”  

Republicans, including Kemp, have argued the legislature has taken steps to create a pro-life culture in the state, such as passing measures that make it easier for Georgians to adopt and expanding postpartum Medicaid for new mothers for up to a year after delivery.

“[We] are committed to continuing Georgia’s reputation of being a state that protects life at all stages,” Kemp said in May when he signed a law that allows nonprofits and religious institutions to set up free maternity homes for pregnant women and new mothers.

Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, who sponsored the 2019 abortion law, criticized Kendrick’s bill. (Setzler was recently elected to the state Senate and will begin his term in January after 17 years in the state House.)  

“Upon cursory review, it’s obvious that Representative Kendrick is putting forth a cynical, non-serious bill candidly trivializing the value of human life,” said Setzler.

The state legislature is set to begin the 2023 session Jan. 9.

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