Polls open in Georgia Senate runoff election between Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock

Key Points
  • Polls opened in Georgia's runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, who is backed by former President Donald Trump.
  • The outcome of the Senate contest could have a major impact on the remainder of President Joe Biden's first term as well as the 2024 political map.
  • The high-profile fight went to a runoff after neither candidate won a majority in Georgia's midterm election.
Georgia Republican senate candidate Herschel Walker (L), and Georgia Democratic Senate candidate U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA)

Polls opened at 7 a.m. in Georgia for in-person voting Tuesday in the fierce Senate runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

The outcome of the Senate contest could have a major impact on Congress' makeup and its legislative abilities, both for the remainder of President Joe Biden's first term and for the 2024 political map.

Turnout in the early vote had already crushed some runoff records for the nation's most competitive electoral battleground. The Peach State has skewed Republican for decades, but it narrowly sided with Biden over former President Donald Trump in 2020, then elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

The high-profile race between Warnock and Walker — marked by dead-even polling, heavy spending and a parade of personal scandals — went to a runoff after no candidate won more than 50% of the vote in the November general election. While Warnock got more votes than Walker, third-party candidate Chase Oliver, a Libertarian, secured just over 2% of the vote, keeping either of the two main contenders from clinching a majority, according to NBC News' count.

Warnock won his seat just one year earlier in a special election that also went to a runoff. Despite holding an incumbent advantage this year, he faced a major threat from Walker, a former football star who is backed by Trump. In the runoff period, the gaffe-prone Walker made numerous media appearances alongside major GOP figures, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Polls broadly showed the candidates neck and neck in the final weeks before the Nov. 8 general election. Some polling trackers showed Walker holding a slight edge by Election Day, rebounding from a major dip in October when his campaign was rocked by a string of bombshell reports about his personal life.

Republicans circled the wagons around the ex-NFL star after The Daily Beast and other news outlets reported that Walker, who expressed staunchly anti-abortion views on the campaign trail, had paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion years earlier. Walker denied the allegations, even as his adult son Christian Walker castigated his father on social media. Less than two weeks before the midterms, a second woman came forward to claim Walker had pushed her to get an abortion.

Walker's personal life had already been under scrutiny before those allegations came to light. Earlier in the campaign, Walker had acknowledged fathering multiple other children who were not previously known to be related to him. The Senate bid has also raised questions about Walker's mental health, and accusations by Walker's ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, resurfaced that he had been abusive and threatening toward her.

Claims about Walker kept coming in the runoff campaign: Last week, The Daily Beast reported allegations by Cheryl Parsa, an ex-girlfriend of Walker's, accusing the Senate candidate of violent behavior and infidelity.

Democrats have already locked up majority control of the Senate, meaning the outcome in Georgia will not sway the balance of power in the next Congress. Even if Walker wins, the chamber will be split 50-50, giving Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. But a Warnock victory could provide crucial padding that slim Senate majority — and it could have a major impact in 2024, where the electoral map is considered to favor Republicans.

Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, announced last week that early-voting turnout rates had broken previous records for the state. That voting period was extended after the Warnock campaign won a state lawsuit to allow early voting on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Some factors can make it difficult to compare turnout from one election cycle to the next. For instance, there was a longer early-voting period before Warnock's 2020 runoff against GOP contender Kelly Loeffler. In 2021, Georgia's GOP-led legislature passed a law condensing the schedule for runoff elections. With fewer days available for voters to cast their ballots, the single-day early voting totals for the 2022 runoff may be higher even as overall turnout is lower.

With a narrower window to vote early, voters in Georgia have reportedly been stuck in hourslong waits at polling sites.

This is developing news. Please check back for updates.