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Supporters of U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) attend an election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff election between Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., December 6, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos BarriaCARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

Raphael Warnock has narrowly won re-election in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff, giving the Democrats tighter control of the upper chamber and continuing the party’s inroads into the fast-growing and once reliably-red state.

Tuesday’s result is another blow to former president Donald Trump, who picked onetime football star Herschel Walker for the Republican nomination only to watch his campaign unravel amid an avalanche of revelations from his past and a non-stop stream of campaign-trail gaffes.

The 53-year-old pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta, Mr. Warnock first won the seat in a by-election two years ago. He finished ahead of Mr. Walker in last month’s midterms but did not reach 50 per cent of the vote, triggering Tuesday’s runoff under state law.

“Thank you, Georgia, I love you, too,” Mr. Warnock, who campaigned for a full six-year term on his record as an activist for health care expansion and voting rights, told a crowd of cheering supporters shortly after 11 pm. “Because this is America, and because we always have a path to make our country greater against unspeakable odds, here we stand together.”

The implications of Raphael Warnock’s victory spill far beyond the borders of Georgia

Mr. Warnock won by a margin of just under three percentage points with nearly all votes tallied.

The Democrats held 50 Senate seats after November’s election, a functional majority with Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. Mr. Warnock’s 51st seat will give the party control of legislative committees, which will make it easier to pass legislation and confirm President Joe Biden’s judicial appointments.

The Georgia election was the most expensive of the midterms, with both parties and their campaign groups spending more than US$425-million, according to a tally by campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets. Democrats were particularly aggressive, flooding the airwaves with attack ads and flying in party luminaries including former president Barack Obama to stump for Mr. Warnock.

Mr. Walker, meanwhile, was at the centre of a parade of scandals involving his domestic violence, previously undisclosed children, false claims of membership in the FBI, exaggerated business record and his residency outside the state. After Mr. Walker backed a nationwide ban on abortion, two ex-girlfriends accused him of putting pressure on them to have the procedures.

The former NFL running back also repeatedly went viral online for rambling stump-speech digressions on everything from bovine insemination to evolution denialism to vampire movies. He campaigned on a culture-war platform, attacking transgender sports participation and the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Mr. Trump pushed Mr. Walker’s candidacy, one of a string of friends and loyalists he backed in the midterms. Nearly all of those in high-profile swing states, from Arizona to Pennsylvania to Michigan, were defeated, damaging the former president’s brand ahead of his 2024 comeback bid. The defeats led to a worse midterm result than expected for Republicans, who only barely took back control of the House of Representatives and lost a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

The endorsement became increasingly toxic for Mr. Walker in recent days, after Mr. Trump dined with anti-Semitic rapper Kanye West and white nationalist Nick Fuentes, then called for the “termination” of the U.S. Constitution so the 2020 election could be overturned.

Mr. Walker, who previously supported Mr. Trump’s false claims that Mr. Biden rigged the vote, backed away from the claim during the election and did not have the ex-president come to campaign for him in the runoff.

In a departure from his political ally, Mr. Walker struck a note of contrition as he conceded the race late Tuesday.

“I’m not going to make any excuses now, because we put up one heck of a fight,” he told supporters. “You can’t blame no one.”

Geoff Duncan, Georgia’s Republican lieutenant-governor, said in the race’s final days that his young children “could articulate the conservative platform better than” some of Mr. Trump’s candidates. “This wasn’t the right brand for Republicanism and I think Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst candidates in our party’s history,” he told CBS.

In a tweet, Mr. Biden said voters in Georgia had “stood up for our democracy” and “rejected Ultra MAGAism.”

The state’s Republican governor and secretary of state, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, respectively, refused to help Mr. Trump overturn the 2020 election. Both kept their distance from Mr. Walker and were comfortably re-elected last month, finishing several per centage points ahead of their party’s Senate candidate.

They later passed new rules making it harder to cast a ballot, however, leading to Democratic fears that Black, low-income and student voters would have trouble voting – a fraught subject in a state at the centre of the civil-rights movement. Mr. Warnock went to court to successfully stop a state attempt to shut down Saturday voting.

Despite the yawning contrast between the polished Mr. Warnock and the fumbling Mr. Walker, the race remained close throughout, in a sign of the country’s increasing political polarization. This, combined with Mr. Kemp’s convincing victory, suggest that the state is still the Republicans’ to lose.

Voters backing Mr. Walker often shrugged off his scandals as being less important than issues such as cutting the size of government, clamping down on the border with Mexico and increasing U.S. oil production.

“I don’t like government spending – I don’t care who is doing it. I like a small-government approach to things,” said Pavel Rusakov, a 28-year-old film and television producer, after casting his ballot at a church near Atlanta.

For Democrats, the result is also a validation of Georgia’s swing-state status. In 2020, Mr. Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in 28 years. The party largely won through a massive mobilization effort among voters in Atlanta and its rapidly-growing, increasingly-diverse suburbs.

Radhika Sharma, an 18-year-old university student, said the Democrats were doing better by running on more substantial platforms, such as improving health care and fighting climate change, and nominating strong candidates such as Mr. Warnock.

“It comes down to someone who has a cause and beliefs,” she said. “People are getting their voices and seeing candidates like them actually running.”