Column: Warnock won and Walker lost because voters judged on character

A man smiling and pointing in front of a building with pillars
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, after defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a runoff election in Georgia.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Even in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream — “one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” — the civil rights martyr didn’t foresee that in his children’s lifetime, two descendants of enslaved people would be the only nominees at the table in a U.S. Senate election. In Georgia!

But was it really progress that put two Black men — Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat who won Tuesday’s runoff, and Herschel Walker, the football legend and Republican candidate — on the ballot? I don’t think so, not given the self-serving cynicism that led first Donald Trump and then other pliant Republican leaders to pluck Walker from Texas to run against Warnock, the senior pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Leading Black pundits called Walker’s candidacy tokenism and “an insult to Black people,” given his evident unfitness for the office.

Yet happily, Walker’s defeat does represent progress, and even the fulfillment of perhaps the most celebrated part of King’s dream: “My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Skin color surely had a lot to do with getting Walker on the ballot. Republicans transparently sought to split the heavily Democratic Black vote in Georgia and to prove they weren’t “a party of racists,” as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted at campaign rallies and in a cringe-inducing Fox News bit.


Yet voters judged Walker on his character. Even a Heisman Trophy-holding Georgia running back couldn’t outrun Warnock with the baggage that Walker was lugging: various allegations of holding a gun to his former wife’s head; abusing her, a son and girlfriend; philandering; paying two girlfriends to get abortions (contrary to his public antiabortion talk) and gilding his rocky business record.

Let his estranged son Christian Walker sum up the lesson of his father’s defeat. He wrote in a pair of post-election tweets: “Don’t beat women, hold guns to peoples heads, fund abortions then pretend your pro-life, stalk cheerleaders, leave your multiple minor children alone to chase more fame, lie, lie, lie, say stupid crap, and make a fool of your family... And then maybe you can win a senate seat.”

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican Herschel Walker, a Trump endorsee, in the Senate runoff election in Georgia.

Dec. 7, 2022

The son also took on his father’s whatabout-ing defenders, who noted that Warnock also endured a difficult divorce and that his former wife alleged in 2020 that he once drove over her foot in his car: “Don’t compare Warnock running over his wife’s foot to my father holding guns and knives to my mothers throat,” Christian Walker wrote.

Beyond Herschel Walker’s character flaws was his manifest unsuitability for office. The mangled sentences and absence of any policy initiatives. Streams of consciousness about bad air infiltrating from China and whether it’s better to be a werewolf or a vampire. Falsehoods about graduating from college, working in law enforcement and personally treating thousands of veterans.

For all Walker’s dubious distinctions, the outcome was close. Just 2.8 percentage points separated him from the victorious Warnock. The fact that nearly 49% of the Georgia voters would choose Walker to be a U.S. senator speaks to the tribalism of today’s two-party politics, the pull of an “R” or “D” next to the candidate’s name.

Nonetheless, Walker’s numbers show that even many Republicans couldn’t hold their noses long enough to vote for him. Geoff Duncan, Georgia’s outgoing lieutenant governor, was among them. Last week, he told CBS that Walker “will probably go down as one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history.”


Presidential and congressional primaries are a failed system. We should find a better way to name candidates.

Dec. 6, 2022

One of the worst, for sure. Walker has company among the other Trump-sponsored sycophants who also lost Senate and gubernatorial races that Republicans arguably should have won in this year’s midterm elections — better party candidates were available — including in battleground states Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire and Michigan.

And now the Republican Party will pay a big price for acquiescing to Trump’s whims in crowning Walker in Georgia and the losers in the other states.

Democrats’ continued control of the Senate in the next two years already was a given; they secured their 50th seat in the general midterm elections last month. But with 51 seats, their control is enhanced by more than a single additional seat might suggest. Take it from a Georgia Republican, no less than former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In an election-day memo posted on his website, Gingrich wrote, “The difference between a 50-50 Senate and a 51-49 Senate is enormous… With 51 seats, Democrats would control every committee. They would be able to report out judges and other Biden administration appointees without needing any Republican votes.”

With the midterms behind them, House members and senators — including dozens of individual legislators either defeated or retiring — feel freer to vote as they choose.

Dec. 2, 2022

For two years, Democrats and Republicans have shared power 50-50 in the committees; there’s no mechanism — like Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote on the Senate floor — to settle standoffs at that level. The arrangement limited Democrats’ power to schedule hearings and investigations, issue subpoenas and confirm President Biden’s executive and judicial nominees.

Come January, that will no longer be so, as long as Democrats stay united. And on the floor, they can withstand a single agenda-blocking defector such as, say, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III or Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.


Republicans’ comeuppance is what they get for only pretending to live up to King’s dream. Next time, perhaps they’ll judge their prospects by the content of their character.