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Early voting underway in closely watched Georgia Senate runoff

After neither candidate received a majority of votes in the midterm election, pastor Raphael Warnock and football legend Herschel Walker are facing off in a highly competitive second round of voting.

ATLANTA (CN) — Statewide early voting kicked off Monday for Georgia's contentious Dec. 6 U.S. Senate runoff contest between Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, with voters setting a single-day record for early voting.

Over 300,000 Georgians cast their ballots on Monday, according to Gabriel Sterling of the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, surpassing the previous early-voting record of 233,000 votes on a single day in 2018.

Georgia is one of only two states, along with Louisiana, that hold a runoff after a general election when neither candidate receives over 50% of the votes cast.

As the only runoff in the nation this election cycle, the Peach State's Senate race has become extremely competitive, with both candidates being Black men who grew up in Georgia and present themselves as devout Christians. The contest has drawn national attention to Georgia and its growing political polarization in a once deep-red southern state.

"The reasons the race is so close are complex, but boil down to the fact that Georgia is a closely divided state from a partisan perspective. Voters are very attached to their political parties and it’s difficult for any campaign or candidate to convince them to vote for the other side," said Jeffrey Lazarus, a political science professor at Georgia State University, in an interview.

Though Democrats have already secured control of the U.S. Senate, they only hold the chamber by a fragile majority. 

The outcome of the Georgia runoff will also further illustrate the changing ambitions of Republican voters, after many candidates across the country who were endorsed by former President Donald Trump lost their midterm races.

"The competitive Senate races tipped largely toward Democrats in a manner that allowed them to retain their majority in that chamber, which is somewhat surprising given the fundamentals such as economic concerns and a comparatively unpopular president," said Joshua Kennedy, a political science and international studies professor at Georgia Southern University.

He added, "I think this speaks to issues of candidate quality. Republicans nominated several less-than-stellar candidates and that probably at least partially explains why they did not have more success in Senate races."

Roughly 200,000 voters who supported Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp chose not to back Walker in the general election. After Kemp dismissed Trump's attempts to overturn Georgia's 2020 presidential election results, the governor beat GOP election denier David Perdue by a landslide in this year's primary.

Walker, a University of Georgia football star who has described Trump as a "mentor," has faced scrutiny on both sides of the aisle for various controversies. It wasn't until after being reelected that Kemp chose to campaign alongside Walker.

Before the launch of Walker's campaign, at least three women had accused him of violently threatening them, including his ex-wife Cindy Grossman. She told ABC News that at one point during their marriage, Walker pointed a pistol at her head and said, “I’m going to blow your fucking brains out.”

Her interview came in response to a book Walker released in 2008 called “Breaking Free," in which he describes his struggles with mental illness and alternating between multiple personalities - a disorder that can leave gaps in a person's memory and causes some men to exhibit violent behavior, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Last month, Grossman and Walker's son Christian attacked the Senate hopeful on Twitter, calling him a liar. “You’re not a ‘family man’ when you left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence,” wrote the 23 year-old Tik-Tok influencer.

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The 60-year-old candidate from Wrightsville, Georgia, faced even more criticism after it was revealed that he lied during speeches about being a former police officer for Cobb County and an FBI agent. Walker's opponents also point to his campaign's false statement that he graduated college with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, when he actually left school to pursue his pro football career.

Just weeks before the midterm election, a woman who said she was the mother of one of Walker's four children claimed that he paid for her to receive an abortion in 2009. Walker, who said he supports a total ban on abortion, denied the claim, as well as a second one brought later by another anonymous woman.

"Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in the state right now, as evidence that in the eight statewide races on the ballot in 2022, the GOP candidate got between 52% and 55% in all but one of them," Lazarus said. "The only one who didn’t is Walker; he only got 48.5% of the vote, and the reason he ran behind the other Republicans is almost certainly the many scandals dogging his campaign."

Yet despite the controversies surrounding Walker, his notoriety as a University of Georgia football legend has scored him points among the program's devout fan base and many conservative voters are undeterred by his questionable past, instead focusing on their opposition to President Joe Biden's administration.

"Georgia voters who support Walker for Senate care about the true problems in this country - high inflation, a wide-open border, our children's education under attack and skyrocketing crime," said Maria Diedrich, a member of Women for Hershel.

However, Walker's Democratic opponent has already proved that he can win a runoff. Warnock and Jon Ossoff did so in 2020, when they flipped control of the Senate. They were the first Democrats to win a Senate race in Georgia since 1996. Warnock also made history as the state's first elected Black senator. The support of Black voters is what helped Warnock secure his first victory, after Democratic activist Stacey Abrams registered more than 800,000 voters leading up to the 2020 election, many of whom were Black.

Although he didn't receive a majority of the total votes cast in this year's midterm, Warnock was ahead of Walker by about 36,000 votes. He also leads in campaign fundraising, with nearly three times the amount of money raised by his GOP rival.

The 53-year-old pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, has shifted his campaign to appeal to the thousands of split-ticket voters who sided with him and Governor Kemp in the midterm.

"This particular race is likely to come down to true independents who really could go either way, and I think as well that there are some disaffected Republicans who are less likely to participate now that Senate control has already been decided." Kennedy said.

One of Warnock's biggest attempts to drive voter turnout took place Monday night, when musician Dave Matthews headlined a concert for his campaign. On Thursday night, former President Barack Obama is set to voice his support for Warnock at a campaign event in Atlanta.

More than 150,000 Georgians cast their vote over the weekend, after Warnock successfully sued the state to allow early voting last Saturday.

Warnock's campaign has touted his support of abortion rights and his efforts to expand Medicaid in Georgia and reduce the cost of prescriptions, while critics have blamed him and the Democrats for higher costs from inflation.

Walker has swung back at Warnock by pointing to his reported ties to the owners of an Atlanta apartment complex who tried to evict tenants during the Coivid-19 pandemic for being behind on rent. Columbia Residential, which manages the apartments, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “the building’s owners bear no responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the property."

"The candidates have largely tried to distinguish themselves in predictable ways." said Kennedy. "Senator Warnock is attempting to leverage his advantages as an incumbent and portray himself as an individual who can reach across the aisle and achieve results in a closely divided Senate. Herschel Walker, meanwhile, seems to be more focused on animating his base and trying to motivate Republicans who might otherwise be tempted to sit the election out."

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