ATLANTA — More than 300,000 Georgians cast their ballots on Monday in Georgia’s highly contentious Senate runoff race, smashing the previous one-day record of 233,000 votes set just four years ago, according to the secretary of state’s office. The record-setting vote tally on the first day of mandatory in-person early voting statewide paves the way for a dramatic showdown between simmering political rivals in Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, with just four days of early voting remaining until election day on Dec. 6.
“Just…WOW!” Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the secretary of state’s office, tweeted late Monday in reference to the huge turnout numbers, adding that Georgians “blew up the old record.”
Warnock and Walker were thrust into an additional four weeks of campaigning after both candidates failed to surpass the 50% threshold needed to win outright in the midterm general election earlier this month, in which a record 3.9 million ballots were cast. It was the same position Warnock found himself in two years ago when he and Sen. Jon Ossoff beat out their Republican opponents in a rare concurrent Senate runoff race in January 2021, which gave Democrats a slight majority in the Senate. Warnock won a special election in that race, earning two years in office. This time he is seeking to win a full six-year term.
But the stakes of this year’s race are dramatically different than two years prior, as Democrats already have a majority in the Senate only due to the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. If Walker loses, they’ll have 51 seats in the chamber, giving Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer more room to maneuver around moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who have been known to break ranks with the rest of the caucus.
Despite absolute control being off the table, both candidates have expressed the importance of this seat for the people of Georgia, and it’s up to Warnock, a Baptist preacher, and Walker, a former football star, to persuade supporters to show up and vote.
On Monday, both candidates held multiple events around the state. Warnock traveled to Morehouse College in Atlanta, his alma mater, and Kennesaw State College to meet with youth leaders and encourage young people to stay active and vote, before ending the evening alongside the Dave Matthews Band at a “Get out the Vote” performance.
“We have unfinished business to finish,” Warnock said Monday afternoon, standing alongside a Martin Luther King Jr. statue outside of a chapel named for the civil rights icon on Morehouse’s campus. “This race is not about character. It’s about competence. … This is about right and wrong, and Herschel Walker is wrong for Georgia.”
Later that evening in suburban Cobb County, with hundreds of middle-aged concertgoers in the crowd, Warnock stood with musician Dave Matthews, who praised Warnock as a “decent man.”
The trio of events for Warnock capped off a Thanksgiving holiday blitz in which he held six rallies across metro Atlanta in the last seven days. By comparison, ahead of Monday, Walker chose not to hold a single public event since last Tuesday, much to the surprise of Republican allies, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But Walker kicked off the week in Toccoa and Cumming, Ga., holding more intimate events in rural parts of the state in front of dozens of residents to hear his plans for the future of Georgia. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and former 2016 Republican presidential nominee, joined Walker at the first event of his weeklong “Evict Warnock Tour” and Walker ended the evening speaking to a crowd of more than 150 supporters in the shadows of a large barn in suburban Forsyth County.
In a wide-ranging speech Monday evening in Cumming on a litany of topics from trans rights to student loan relief to rabid law enforcement support to the Bible, Walker wooed the crowd with anecdotes about moments in his own life growing up in small-town Wrightsville, Ga., as a football hero turned successful entrepreneur and shared how those skillsets would translate into office.
“I’m ready for this. I was built for this,” Walker proclaimed, saying it was “God’s will” that he runs for Senate. “You vote for me and we all get to the promised land.”
“Raphael Warnock is the problem,” he added. “He’s been fooling us trying to take us down that elevator. I’m not falling for it. … [People like him] come like a thief in the night.”
For those unable to see either candidate in person on Monday, it’s likely they still saw or heard one of them on various radio or TV ads or on sign placards, billboards and text messages in all corners of the state as both parties continue to shell out tens of millions in this runoff race to get in front of as many potential voters as possible. The most recent figures show groups from both parties spent a combined $56.2 million, which includes future reservations through election day on Dec. 6, according to AdImpact data. But Democrats far outpace Republicans, nearly 2 to 1, with Democrats spending $36.1 million to Republicans’ $20.2 million thus far.
Warnock’s advertising spend of $18.1 million alone is also trouncing Walker’s $6.4 million by a margin of nearly 3 to 1, according to CNN.
In addition to the massive spending numbers, early indications point to Democrats having an edge through three days of early voting following last week’s court order that allowed for Saturday early voting to take place. Warnock’s campaign, the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sued to challenge state law that says it is illegal to have early voting on a Saturday if there is a holiday on the Thursday or Friday preceding it.
Reports of long lines in and around Atlanta and many Democratic-leaning counties hint at positive news for Warnock as many Republican-leaning counties chose not to make Saturday voting available, which could prove to be a costly move as more than 156,000 voted through the weekend.
With just one week left to decide who will be the next senator to represent Georgia, Walker and Warnock — two men on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum — agree on the importance of getting people to the polls.
“This is one of the most important elections we’ll ever have in our lifetime,” Walker said Monday.
For Warnock, the Senate already being under Democratic control doesn’t lessen the race’s importance one bit.
“Who gets elected in this race matters a whole lot for Georgians,” he said. “This is about who is going to represent 11 million people for six years. I think that is a big deal.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images; Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images