By BILL BARROW and JEFF AMY
ATLANTA (AP) — Polls began to close Tuesday night in the country’s final Senate contest, as Georgia voters await a winner in the runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican football legend Herschel Walker.
The contest will determine whether Democrats gain an outright 51-49 Senate majority or retain their bare control of a 50-50 chamber based on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. Last year, runoff victories by Warnock and fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff gave the party that razor-thin edge.
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 already 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 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 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.
Walker awaited results Tuesday night at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, while Warnock was at a hotel less than a mile away.
Last month, Walker, 60, ran more than 200,000 votes behind Republican Gov. Brian Kemp after a campaign dogged by his meandering campaign speeches and by damaging allegations, including claims that he paid for two former girlfriends’ abortions — accusations that he denied.
Voting went smoothly Tuesday, despite some cold, rainy conditions in some parts early in the day. 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.
Voting Tuesday in Atlanta, Tom Callaway praised the Republican Party’s strength in Georgia and said he’d supported Kemp in the opening round of voting. But he cast his ballot for Warnock because he didn’t think “Herschel Walker has the credentials to be a senator.”
“I didn’t believe he had a statement of what he really believed in or had a campaign that made sense,” Callaway said.
Warnock, whose 2021 victory was in a special election to serve out the remainder of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, said he believed he had convinced enough voters, including independents and moderate Republicans, that he deserved a full term.
“They know this race is about competence and character,” Warnock said. Walker, too, predicted victory and likened the contest to his leading Georgia to the 1980 national championship: “I love winning championships.”
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.
For months, the senator focused on his work in the Senate and his status as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. However, beginning with the closing stretch before the Nov. 8 general election, he added withering takedowns of Walker, using the football star’s rocky past to argue that the political newcomer was “not fit” for high office.
Walker countered by seeking to portray Warnock as too beholden to President Joe Biden. He even accused Warnock of “being on his knees, begging” at the White House, a searing charge for a Black challenger to level against a Black senator about his relationship with a white president.
A multimillionaire businessman, Walker has inflated his philanthropic activities and business achievements, including claiming that his company employed hundreds of people and grossed tens of millions of dollars in sales annually, even though records indicate he had eight employees and averaged about $1.5 million a year. He has suggested that he’s worked as a law enforcement officer and graduated college, though he has done neither.
Walker was also forced to acknowledge during the campaign that he had fathered three children out of wedlock whom he had never before spoken about publicly — in conflict with his yearslong criticism of absentee fathers and his calls for Black men, in particular, to play an active role in their kids’ lives.
His ex-wife said Walker once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. He has never denied those specifics and wrote of his violent tendencies in a 2008 memoir that attributed the behavior to mental illness.
Warnock promoted his Senate accomplishments, touting a provision he sponsored to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients. He hailed deals on infrastructure and maternal health care forged with Republican senators, mentioning those GOP colleagues more than he did Biden or other Washington Democrats.
After the general election, Biden, who has struggled with low approval ratings, promised to help Warnock in any way he could, even if it meant staying away from Georgia. Warnock campaigned instead with former President Barack Obama.
Wary of possible backlash, Walker avoided campaigning with Trump until the campaign’s final day, when the pair conducted a conference call Monday with supporters.
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 considered part of their path to a majority.
Walker separated himself from Trump in one notable way. Trump has spent two years falsely claiming that his loss in Georgia and nationally was fraudulent, despite being rebuked by numerous federal and local officials and a long list of courts.
At his lone debate against Warnock in October, Walker was asked whether he’d accept the results even if he lost. He replied with one word: “Yes.”
Associated Press writer Ron Harris contributed to this report.
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