Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican football legend Herschel Walker were locked in a tight race Tuesday night in their runoff election that will decide the final U.S. Senate seat.
With votes still being counted, Warnock was notching a strong performance in and around the Democratic stronghold of Atlanta, while Walker maintained his advantage in Republican-leaning rural areas.
Democrats are already assured a Senate majority, so the contest will determine whether the party has a 51-49 advantage or a 50-50 edge with Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. Last year, runoff victories by Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the chamber for the first two years of President Joe Biden's term.
In the November election, Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes out of almost 4 million but fell shy of a majority, triggering the second round of voting. About 1.9 million runoff votes had been cast by mail and during early voting, an advantage for Democrats whose voters more commonly cast ballots this way. Republicans typically fare better on Election Day itself.
The state was on track for a robust Election Day, with state officials estimating the total number of votes cast to be roughly 1.4 million — slightly more than the November midterm and the 2020 election. But early and mail voting did not reach the same levels as years past, and it was likely the total number of votes cast would be less than the 2021 Senate runoff election.
Voting rights groups point to changes made by state lawmakers after the 2020 election that shortened the period for runoffs, from nine weeks to four, as a major reason for the decline in early and mail voting.
The extended campaign became a bitter fight between two Black men in a major Southern state: Warnock, the state's first Black senator and the senior minister of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and Walker, a former University of Georgia football star and political novice backed by former President Donald Trump.
A Warnock victory would solidify Georgia's status as a battleground heading into the 2024 presidential election. A win for Walker, however, could be an indication of Democratic weakness, especially given that Georgia Republicans swept every other statewide contest last month.
A 51-49 Democratic advantage in the Senate would mean that the party would no longer have to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Republicans and won't have to rely on Harris to break as many tie votes.
Voting went smoothly despite some cold, rainy conditions in some parts early Tuesday. Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the progressive New Georgia Project Action Fund, said the group had seen few issues around the state, with lines advancing and equipment issues being addressed promptly.
Total spending on the seat this cycle approached $400 million by Tuesday, a staggering figure even for such a populous state with an expensive major media market like Atlanta.