ATLANTA — Aaron Jones took a deep breath when he emerged from the public library on Ponce de Leon Avenue here into the warm Georgia sun after casting his votes in the midterm elections on Tuesday afternoon.
By late that evening, he was anxiety-ridden and befuddled as Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock was engaged in a tight race with the embattled former football star Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee.
Wednesday morning, Jones was exasperated.
“It’s been stressful,” Jones, an auto body repair supervisor, said. “Not from the standpoint of who I would vote for. But you look at what’s going on in politics and too much of it is not about the people. It’s ugly stuff about one party over the other, and that’s hard to watch and hear every day. But now, after all that, it’s still not over.”
Warnock, as of Wednesday morning, had a slight lead, with 49.2% of the vote compared with Walker’s 48.7%. Since neither candidate had reached a majority of the overall vote, as required by state law to claim victory, the two will battle it out in a runoff election, set for Dec. 6.
The result could decide whether Democrats retain their tenuous hold on the 50-50 Senate, especially with two other Senate races (Arizona and Nevada) still to be called.
“Now we have to go through another month of ugly politics,” Jones, 47, said. “This is disappointing because one candidate is a qualified senator. The other is Herschel Walker.”
A runoff election to decide control of the Senate is not new for Georgia or its Black voters. Just 22 months ago, in January 2021, the Black vote (which was instrumental in getting President Joe Biden elected two months before) propelled Warnock to victory in a runoff. That win, coupled with that of Sen. Jon Ossoff, also in a runoff against a Republican incumbent, gave Democrats control of the Senate.
Now, Jones said, Black voters are facing the burden of having to pull Georgia — and the country — across the line. Again.
“The thing is, we can do it,” he said. “We’ve shown it. It makes no sense that we have to go back. That part is confusing.”
The fact that Walker was able to force a runoff after enduring so much controversy during the campaign baffled Jones and other Black voters here. Two women accused the former Heisman Trophy winner of having paid for their abortions years ago. Walker, who declared himself anti-abortion, denied the claims. Warnock’s ad campaign focused on Walker’s brushes with the law, his exaggerations about his academic credentials, his mental health issues and family concerns, but it was still a tight race.
“We can’t sleep on him,” Dee Thompson, a nail shop technician in southwest Atlanta, said. “I don’t understand it. Warnock has done a good job. He’s shown he’s qualified. Herschel Walker?”
She shook her head. “I just don’t see how even Republicans can say they care about Georgia and vote for him.” But an NBC News Exit Poll showed that Walker received 95% of the Republican vote and 70% of the white vote, which was 62% of all those who voted.
Although Walker received overwhelming support from Republicans, exit polls show that the party did not necessarily vote down ballot to support him. Gov. Brian Kemp, who defeated Stacey Abrams, received 74% of the white vote compared to Walker’s 70%.
But that hardly matters to Walker supporters like Shelley Wynter, a Black conservative talk show host on WSB in Atlanta. Walker making the runoff was a victory.
“After six months and $72-plus million of withering personal attacks, Herschel Walker’s in a runoff with a sitting senator, an educated, smart, brilliant pastor,” Wynter said. “And I think that speaks to the unpopularity of the Democrat Party here in Georgia. That’s really the only thing to explain it. You can’t explain it away racially. It’s not like Herschel’s a white guy. You can’t explain it away on gender, because they’re both males. It can only be this.”
‘Tough to accept that she didn’t win’
Abrams’ failure to become Georgia’s first Black female governor, especially after coming close against Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race, was disappointing to the many Black women who showed up at the polls and idolized the Spelman grad for her voter registration efforts following her defeat four years ago.
“Tough to accept that she didn’t win,” Thompson said. “It was encouraging to hear young women talking politics in the shop. All of them have so much admiration for Stacey Abrams.”
Abrams received 90% of the Black vote, but only 51% of the women’s overall vote, according to NBC News Exit Polls. Only 25% of white voters voted for Abrams, compared to Warnock’s 29%. Overall, Warnock received at least 100,000 more votes than Abrams.
“I voted for Georgia first. I can’t be worried about the Senate,” Jones said. “That will take care of itself. And I think some Republicans felt the same way by how they didn’t vote for Herschel. They believed in Kemp. And like us, they didn’t believe in Walker.”
Eric Walton, a real estate agent in Atlanta, had similar feelings after he cast his ballot at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church near downtown. He said the key issue for him in deciding to support Warnock and Abrams was to counter Republican extremists and incompetence.
“The possible overthrowing of the government, the insurrection and the election deniers were huge for me,” Walton said.
Thompson agreed, saying Walker’s association with Trump was the ultimate factor for her. “I’m not that big on politics, but I understand what’s at stake with this election,” she said. “Black people are not interested in anyone who reminds them of Trump. Herschel Walker is a Republican who would be a Trump puppet — and not good for us.”
One of the major takeaways from the Georgia races, according to Ariel Martin, 55, was that Black voters do matter.
“There’s power in our votes. If 2020 hadn’t happened, this race would seem like any other old midterms to Black people,” Martin, a tax attorney in suburban Atlanta, said Wednesday while shopping at his local grocery store. “But we realized our power two years ago, and now, despite voter suppression, we voted in big numbers because we know our votes matter now. Black people have made it so Republicans have to be accountable.”
“And now it’s back on us to save the Senate,” added S. Dorian Hampton, 41. “We did it once. We can do it again.”