By BILL Barrow and JEFF AMY
ATLANTA (AP) — Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican football legend Herschel Walker were locked in a tight race Tuesday night in a runoff that will decide the final U.S. Senate seat for the 2022 midterms.
With votes still being counted, Warnock turned in a strong performance in and around the Democratic stronghold of Atlanta. Walker maintained his lead in Republican-leaning rural areas, but in several of those counties, Warnock has slightly tightened his margin since November’s general election, putting pressure on Walker to find gains in more Democratic metropolitan areas as that election officials continue to tabulate the results.
Democrats are already assured a majority in the Senate, so the contest will determine whether the party has a 51-49 advantage or a 50-50 advantage with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Last year, 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.
Both contests were within 2 percentage points, and one of Georgia’s top election officials predicted another close finish in this runoff Tuesday night. “Looks like a long night ahead. But that’s why we’re counting electoral votes,” Gabriel Sterling, a top lieutenant in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, tweeted.
In last month’s general election, Warnock led Walker by about 37,000 votes out of nearly 4 million, but fell short of the majority, triggering a runoff. About 1.9 million runoff votes have already been cast by mail and during early voting, a boon for Democrats whose voters vote that way more often. Republicans usually do better on Election Day itself.
The state was on track for a solid Election Day, with state officials estimating the total number of votes cast at about 1.4 million — slightly more than during the November midterms and the 2020 election. But the vote early and mail-in voting did not reach the same levels as in past years, and the total number of votes cast was likely to be lower than that of the 2021 Senate election.
Voting rights groups point to changes made by state lawmakers after the 2020 election, which shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four, as a major reason for the decline in early and mail-in voting.
The sprawling campaign became a bitter battle between two black men from a major Southern state: Warnock, the state’s first black senator and senior minister at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and Walker, a former star of University of Georgia football. and political novice endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
A Warnock victory would solidify Georgia’s status as a battleground ahead of the 2024 presidential election. A Walker victory, however, could be an indication of Democratic weakness, especially given that Georgia Republicans have swept all other level contests state last month.
Walker awaited the results Tuesday night at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, while Warnock was at a hotel less than a mile away.
A 51-49 Democratic advantage in the Senate would mean the party would no longer have to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Republicans and would not have to rely on Harris to break as many tie votes as possible.
Last month, Walker, 60, trailed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by more than 200,000 votes after a campaign marred by his meandering campaign speeches and damaging allegations, including claims he paid for the abortions of two former girlfriend – allegations she denied.
Voting went off smoothly despite cold and rainy conditions in some parts early Tuesday. Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Progressive Project Action Fund, said the group has seen few problems in the state, with lines moving forward and equipment issues being addressed promptly.
Voting in Atlanta on Tuesday, Tom Callaway touted the strength of the Republican Party in Georgia and said he supported Kemp in the opening round of voting. But he cast his vote for Warnock because he didn’t think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator.”
“I didn’t think he had a statement about what he really believed in or had a meaningful campaign,” Callaway said.
Warnock, whose 2021 victory was in a special election to serve out the remainder of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, said he believes he has convinced enough voters, including independents and moderate Republicans, that he deserves a full term.
“They know this race is about competence and character,” Warnock said. Walker also predicted victory and compared the contest with his leading Georgia to the 1980 national championship: “I like to win championships.”
Total spending on the seat this cycle approached $400 million through Tuesday, a staggering figure even for a state as populous with an expensive media market as Atlanta.
For months, the senator focused on his work in the Senate and his position as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. However, starting in the closing period before the Nov. 8 general election, he added to the destruction of Walker, using the football star’s rocky past to argue the political newcomer was “unfit” for high office.
Walker countered by seeking to portray Warnock as too beholden to Biden. He even accused Warnock of “sitting on his knees begging” the White House, a fierce charge for a black opponent to stand up to a black senator about his relationship with a white president.
A multimillionaire businessman, Walker inflated his philanthropic activities and business achievements, including claiming that his company employed hundreds of people and took in tens of millions of dollars in annual sales, even though records show he had eight employees and an average of about $1.5 million per year. He implied that he worked as a law enforcement officer and graduated from college, although he did neither.
Walker was also forced to admit during the campaign that he had three children out of wedlock that he had not previously spoken about publicly – in conflict with his years-long criticism of absentee fathers and his appeals as black men , in particular, to play an active role. role in their children’s lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He never denied these details and wrote about his violent tendencies in a 2008 memoir that attributed the behavior to mental illness.
Warnock touted his Senate accomplishments by promoting a provision he sponsored to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients. He hailed deals on infrastructure and maternal health care with Republican senators, mentioning those GOP colleagues more than he did Biden or other Washington Democrats.
After the general election, Biden, who struggled with low approval ratings, vowed to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Warnock instead campaigned with former President Barack Obama.
Worried about the possible backlash, Walker avoided campaigning with Trump until the final day of the campaign, when the two held a conference call with supporters on Monday.
Walker’s candidacy was the GOP’s last chance to flip a Senate seat this year. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, Blake Masters of Arizona, Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, all Trump loyalists, lost competitive Senate races that Republicans saw as part of their path to the majority.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy and Ron Harris contributed to this report.