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Supporters of Reverend Raphael Warnock, Democratic Senator for Georgia attend a election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff elections between Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Atlanta, Georgia, on Dec. 6.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

Senator Raphael Warnock and former footballer Herschel Walker are neck in neck in the vote count over Georgia’s Senate runoff, leaving undecided a pivotal battle over the emerging swing state and the composition of the country’s upper chamber.

Mr. Warnock’s Democrats are hoping the midterm elections’ final vote will solidify their control of the Senate and continue their inroads in once reliably-red Georgia, while the Republicans are angling to save face after underperforming in last month’s midterms.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump, who chose Mr. Walker for the nomination, is also hoping for a boost to his 2024 comeback campaign after a series of defeats for his chosen candidates.

But as of late Tuesday, the election was too close to call, with the pair trading leads and hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be counted.

The two candidates were a stark contrast, with much of the race defined by Mr. Warnock’s polished rhetoric against an avalanche of scandalous revelations and campaign-trail gaffes from Mr. Walker.

The Democrats held 50 Senate seats after November’s election, in which they picked up a formerly Republican seat in Pennsylvania – a functional majority with Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. A 51st seat would give the party a majority on legislative committees, making it easier to pass legislation and confirm President Joe Biden’s judicial appointments.

Holding the upper chamber to a 50-50 split would give the Republicans more opportunities to push back against the governing Democrats.

The Georgia election was the most expensive of the midterms, with both parties and their campaign groups spending more than US$425-million, according to a tally by campaign-finance watchdog Open Secrets.

The 53-year-old pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta, Mr. Warnock first won the seat in a by-election two years ago. He finished ahead of Mr. Walker in last month’s midterms but did not reach 50 per cent of the vote, triggering Tuesday’s runoff under state law.

Campaigning for a full six-year term, Mr. Warnock highlighted his record as an activist for health care expansion and voting rights, as well as his work in the Senate lowering prescription drug costs.

Mr. Walker, meanwhile, was at the centre of scandals involving his domestic violence, previously undisclosed children, false claims of membership in the FBI, exaggerated business record and his residency outside the state. After Mr. Walker backed a nationwide ban on abortion, two ex-girlfriends accused him of putting pressure on them to have the procedures.

The former NFL running back also went viral online for rambling stump-speech digressions on everything from bovine insemination to evolution denialism to vampire movies.

Mr. Trump pushed Mr. Walker’s candidacy, one of a string of friends and loyalists he backed in the midterms. Nearly all of those in high-profile swing states, from Arizona to Pennsylvania to Michigan, were defeated. Their failures led to a worse-than-expected midterms for the Republicans, defying predictions of a “red wave.”

The ex-president’s endorsement became increasingly toxic for Mr. Walker in recent days, after Mr. Trump dined with anti-Semitic rapper Kanye West and white nationalist Nick Fuentes, then called for the “termination” of the U.S. constitution so the 2020 election could be overturned.

Mr. Walker, who previously supported Mr. Trump’s lies that Mr. Biden rigged the vote, backed away from the claim during the election and did not have the ex-president come to campaign for him in the runoff.

Despite the yawning contrast between the smooth Mr. Warnock and the fumbling Mr. Walker, the race remained close throughout, in a sign of the country’s increasing political polarization.

In conversations around the Atlanta suburbs, voters backing Mr. Walker often shrugged off his scandals as being less important than issues such as cutting spending, clamping down on the border with Mexico and increasing U.S. oil production.

“I don’t like government spending – I don’t care who is doing it. I like a small-government approach to things,” said Pavel Rusakov, a 28-year-old film and television producer after casting his ballot.

The Republicans made hay portraying Mr. Warnock as an overly-slick politician after he refused to answer difficult questions such as whether he would support Mr. Biden for re-election. The party also circulated a video in which the pastor’s ex-wife accused him of running over her foot with his car, which he denied.

The Democrats are hoping to cement Georgia as a swing state. In 2020, Mr. Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in 28 years. The party largely won through a massive mobilization effort among voters in Atlanta and its rapidly-growing, increasingly-diverse suburbs.

Radhika Sharma, an 18-year-old university student, said the Democrats were doing better by running on more substantial platforms – she listed health care and climate change as her top issues – and nominating strong candidates such as Mr. Warnock.

“It comes down to someone who has a cause and beliefs,” she said. “People are getting their voices and seeing candidates like them actually running.”

Looming over the election was the spectre of voter suppression, a fraught subject in a state that was at the centre of the civil-rights movement.

The state’s Republican governor and secretary of state, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, refused to help Mr. Trump overturn the 2020 election. To help mollify election deniers, they subsequently passed a law making it harder to vote, which Democrats feared would discourage Black, low-income and student voters from going to the polls.