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Georgia voters cast ballots in final midterm test of Trump's influence

Voting in Marietta
Voting in Marietta 00:55

(CNN) -- Georgia voters are casting their final judgments in the runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker in a contest that will shape the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled Senate next year.

It closes out a difficult midterm cycle for Republicans -- who won the House majority but saw their hopes for Capitol Hill dominance dashed by the troubled candidacies of some Donald Trump-backed Senate nominees.

With Trump having urged Walker to run, the runoff is also a final midterm test of the former president's influence as he embarks on a third White House bid. And in the wake of President Joe Biden narrowly carrying the state in 2020, combined with two Senate runoff wins that handed him a Democratic Senate in 2021, Tuesday's runoff could go a long way toward answering whether Georgia is now definitively a purple state.

Democratic control of the Senate next year was already settled by hard-fought contests in states like Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto clung to her seat despite economic headwinds, and in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman picked up a GOP-held seat.

But Tuesday's election will determine whether Democrats gain critical leverage on Capitol Hill. The Senate has been evenly divided 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes. That has given inordinate power to moderate figures like Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have often single-handedly curbed the ambitions of their party. If Warnock wins a full six-year term, Democrats would have a 51-49 majority that would allow them to dispense with the current power-sharing agreement with Republicans, while making it easier to advance Biden's nominees.

Though Warnock gained more votes than Walker in last month's general election, he did not earn the majority needed to win outright. The ensuing runoff has attracted more than $80 million in ad spending, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact, with Democrats spending about twice as much as Republicans.

Warnock held a narrow lead over Walker in a CNN poll released last week. Walker had a negative favorability rating as voters questioned his honesty after a series of scandals. He's denied reports that he pressured or encouraged women to have abortions, despite previously advocating for bans on the procedure without exceptions on the campaign trail. CNN's KFile has reported that he is getting a tax break intended only for a primary residence this year on his home in the Dallas, Texas, area -- while running for the seat in Georgia.

The state broke single-day early voting records last week, but the early voting period was significantly condensed from 2021. The overall number of voters decreased from roughly 3.1 million last year to about 1.87 million in 2022. Democrats are optimistic, in part, because of Black voters -- who strongly favored Warnock in CNN's poll. They accounted for nearly 32% of the turnout in early voting, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's Office.

Walker, however, is counting on robust turnout among GOP voters, who tend to vote in greater numbers on Election Day.

"This is about turnout," Walker said Monday as he urged voters to "flood the polls."

"Now, we've got to get in the game. We can't sit on the sideline anymore."

But Trump -- who, like Biden, steered clear of the Peach State during the runoff -- has complicated GOP fortunes across the country this year as voters rejected many of his election-denying candidates in swing states.

Some of the earliest signs of that were in Georgia two years ago, when his efforts to raise doubts about mail-in ballots and vote counting were blamed, in part, for the GOP's 2021 losses in twin runoffs that handed Democrats control of the Senate.

This year, the former president's efforts to exact revenge on GOP Gov. Brian Kemp -- who rebuffed Trump's demands to overturn the 2020 election -- were soundly rejected by voters in the primary. Kemp went on to handily defeat Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams last month, garnering about 200,000 more votes than Walker.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who also balked at Trump's outlandish demands after the 2020 election, told CNN on Monday that Trump's backing in the primary was the only reason Walker became the GOP nominee, but now the former president is "probably the biggest headwind Herschel Walker has."

Duncan suggested Tuesday's election would serve as a kind of final reckoning for Trump -- one that might lead Republicans to take a firmer stand against his meddling in future elections, even as the former president is looking to re-establish himself as the party's standard bearer in his recently announced bid to retake the White House.

"We're trying to break this vicious cycle of addiction to Donald Trump as Republicans," Duncan said on CNN's "AC360."

"We just got trounced when it should have been one of the biggest, easiest layups we've made in years, in decades. But unfortunately we put the wrong candidates in places all over the country."

Still, Trump weighed in on Walker's behalf in a tele-rally on Monday, telling supporters that if his candidate wins, "Republicans can make (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer's life a little more difficult and we can slam on the brakes on every extreme left-wing judge."

"A vote for Raphael Warnock is a vote to give Chuck Schumer and the unhinged far-left Democrats total control of the United States Senate. We can't let this happen," he added.

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