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Opinion Raphael Warnock, with Herschel Walker’s help, is now a national voice

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) takes the stage during an election night watch party in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock’s reelection is a rebuke to the idea that partisanship overwhelms personal character, another blow to Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican Party and a warning to the GOP that moderate suburban voters will continue to resist flawed candidates and right-wing extremism.

It is also a tribute to Warnock himself. A pastor at the Atlanta church once served by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Warnock has long been theologically preoccupied with balancing political activism on behalf of racial justice with the calling to personal piety. As a politician, he has proved adept at balancing broadly progressive political goals with a moderate, unifying demeanor and a relentless focus on issues central to Georgia’s voters.

His victory in a contest many thought a year ago would be unwinnable for a Democrat will transform him into a major voice in his party, which hopes to make more inroads in the Deep South by mobilizing a multiracial political coalition of the sort that sent Warnock back to Washington.

The highly publicized personal flaws of Warnock’s opponent, former University of Georgia football star and National Football League veteran Herschel Walker, were certainly decisive. Trump effectively imposed Walker on the Georgia GOP, a fact that surely will deepen the rage many Republicans already feel toward the former president for foisting weak candidates on the party elsewhere. Republicans swept every major statewide office this year in Georgia — except the Senate seat.

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With tens of millions of dollars in advertising, Warnock’s campaign made it as hard as possible for Republican voters to ignore either the many deficiencies of Walker’s personal life or his inability to communicate a coherent purpose.

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Walker still managed to secure roughly 48.6 percent of the runoff vote, underscoring the ongoing power of partisanship. But in November, some 200,000 voters who supported Republican Gov. Brian Kemp either backed Warnock outright or refused to vote for Walker. In the lower-turnout runoff, the gap between Walker’s vote total and Kemp’s was even larger. For such Republicans, even in a highly polarized moment, Walker’s candidacy ratified the truth of John F. Kennedy’s observation that “sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”

Even so, the partisan implications of Warnock’s triumph are significant. His reelection gives Senate Democrats breathing room they did not enjoy over the past two years in a 50-50 Senate.

Republican control of the House will limit what the party can accomplish legislatively in the final years of President Biden’s term. But by winning the party a 51st seat, Warnock will give Democrats an outright majority on Senate committees that are split evenly in the current Congress. This will speed the confirmation of judges and ease the way for midterm personnel changes in the Biden administration. Getting Biden’s appointees through Senate committees will be much easier.

Democrats will also be able to issue committee subpoenas without Republican support, creating a useful counter-force to a Republican House intent on launching a large number of highly partisan investigations. The Senate, if it wished, could also pick up on investigations begun by Democrats in the House over the past two years.

And after two years during which a single Democratic senator could upend the party’s plans, an extra vote will create a different dynamic. Swing Democratic senators, notably Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, will remain important (especially when they agree), but their individual influence will be reduced. We will see fewer “President Manchin” stories.

Although the role of Walker’s shortcomings cannot be underestimated, the ability of Democrats to prevail again in a Georgia runoff speaks both to demographic change in the state and exceptional organizing work by the party and civil rights groups over the last decade.

Historically, Republicans outvoted Democrats in the state’s runoff elections. That pattern was broken two years ago when Warnock and Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff prevailed in an unusual contest in which both seats reached the runoff ballot.

Former state representative Stacey Abrams was defeated in her second try for Georgia’s governorship last month, but the impact of her dedication to grass-roots mobilization was felt again. Democrats turned out a huge early vote for Warnock in the face of new restrictions on voting access enacted by the Republican-led legislature and signed by Kemp.

That Warnock won after a campaign during which he crisscrossed the state reminding his supporters of the urgency of voting seemed appropriate for a man who has used his eloquence again and again on behalf of equal access to the ballot.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, he referred to voting as a “kind of prayer for the world we desire.”

On the Senate floor last year, he argued that “voting rights are preservative of all other rights” and reminded his colleagues of the long struggle for democratic equality. “Too many people died. Too much blood was shed. Too many sacrifices made. Too much is at stake.”

Thanks to that struggle — and with help from Republicans who could not abide their party’s standard-bearer — Warnock will have six more years to press that case.

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