Dozens of candidates from both parties rushed to the Capitol on Monday to qualify to run for office at the start of the five-day qualifying period, a surge of enthusiasm that underscores Georgia’s role as a premier battleground state.

Long lines of eager candidates formed under the Gold Dome well before party officials jump-started the process, as Democrats took another step to prove their statewide victories in the last election cycle were no fluke — and Republicans promised to hold their ground.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock was among the first to qualify, declaring that he would “fight to lower the costs on Americans’ shoulders” and combat high gas prices. His top Republican rival, former football star Herschel Walker, arrived shortly afterward to fill out his paperwork.

“The state is hurting, so I decided I’m jumping in this race and see if I can straighten some things out,” said Walker, who criticized the Democrat’s voting record. He also indicated he wouldn’t participate in GOP debates, saying Warnock is “who I need to be debating right now.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock tucks paperwork into his jacket pocket Monday, shortly after he became among the first candidates to qualify for this year's elections. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Walker’s best-known Republican rival, accused his GOP opponent of cowardice.

“He’s still hiding in the basement. If I was his consultant, that’s exactly what I’d do. I’d stay away from y’all,” Black said in an interview as he prepared to qualify. “I guess he’s obeying them and waiting on a controlled environment to come out and speak what they’ve written for him to say.”

The opening of the five-day process is always the most frenetic, as many candidates waste no time to qualify, in part to ward off challengers. It creates awkward situations, as archrivals bump into each other in crowded hallways — or sometimes stand in the same line.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath — both competing for the same 7th District seat — filled out their paperwork within hours of each other.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene stood near the front of the line a few spots ahead of two Republican primary challengers who say her record of controversy, including a recent appearance at a pro-Russia white nationalist rally, makes her unfit to serve.

There was also an element of drama. Kwanza Hall, a former Atlanta councilman and brief member of the U.S. House, surprised many by announcing late Sunday a run for lieutenant governor. Former state Rep. Mike Coan launched a bid for the Republican nomination for labor commissioner.

Other candidates were contemplating switching contests — or dropping out altogether.

Dozens of state legislators are retiring, but the halls echoed with whispers of others. State Sen. Jeff Mullis, a charismatic Republican who chairs the Senate’s agenda-setting Rules Committee, became the latest to join their ranks with a lengthy farewell announcement.

For some retiring legislators, the start of qualifying meant coming to terms with their farewells.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the Legislature, isn’t running for another term for the first time since 1974 after he was tapped by President Joe Biden as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

”Forty-eight years is a long time. I have mixed emotions,” said Smyre, his voice strained with emotion. “I knew this day was coming when I got the call. And I have this emotional attachment because I’m leaving something that I love.”

Some of the biggest names don’t plan to qualify until later this week. Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams will soon fill out their paperwork, as will former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is taking on the incumbent in the GOP primary. Perdue spent the day at campaign stops in Cumming and Tifton with Donald Trump Jr.

“What we’re trying to do with Don Jr. and others is to get the people mobilized and get them out to vote,” said Perdue, who was on the losing end of a Democratic sweep of U.S. Senate runoffs last year.

“We realize now what happened when we don’t vote in Georgia: We see two very liberal radical senators right now representing this conservative state,” Perdue said.

Democrats plan to build on their gains by flipping other statewide offices. U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said she expects Democrats to compete in down-ballot races that once went ignored.

“We have to make sure that we are engaging our base all across the state,” she said. “And that means having local candidates that live in their communities, that they know and can touch, who are on the ballot.”

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of Georgia's Democratic Party, said she expects the party to field candidates in down-ballot races that have often been ignored in the past. “We have to make sure that we are engaging our base all across the state,” she said. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray