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Behind the drama of the presidential race, the Nov. 3 election catapulted the Rev. Raphael Warnock into the national spotlight.
Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, is one of two Democrats vying for a pair of U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in Jan. 5 runoff elections. If victorious, they would flip control of the Senate to Democrats, transforming President-elect Joe Biden’s first years in office.
If he wins, Warnock would also make history as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and just the 11th Black senator in the nation’s history. In an interview with Yahoo News last week, Warnock said the historic significance was “not lost” on him.
“Being the first Black senator from Georgia would be a tremendous honor,” said the 51-year-old Warnock, who grew up in the Kayton Homes projects in Savannah, Ga., and was the 11th of 12 children. “I hope that seeing me accomplish that will encourage and inspire other marginalized people and people of good conscience in our state to step up and fight for what they believe in.”
The pastor further said: “In no other place other than America is my story even possible. So I believe the American dream is still possible, but it is slipping away from far too many, and the gap between the haves and the have nots is becoming a chasm.”
The significance of the Georgia contests also appears to be resonating with the state’s voters, more than 2 million of whom have already voted in the runoffs, according to state data. These sorts of off-cycle contests typically draw much less turnout than the higher-profile presidential contest, but the early votes so far are tracking just behind the November election, in which 5 million Georgians voted.
And many of these Georgians are becoming newly acquainted with Warnock, thanks in no small part to the millions of dollars in advertising spent by Democrats and Republicans to defend and attack him.
Both of Warnock’s parents were Pentecostal preachers, and Warnock’s father served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Wanting to follow in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps, Warnock went on to attend Morehouse College, a historically Black, all-male college in Atlanta, eventually earning four degrees before becoming in 2005 the pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King used to preach.
“Things are harder now than they were for me [growing up], and that’s been especially true in this pandemic,” Warnock told Yahoo News. “We need a leader who will work for Georgians and fight.”
Warnock’s opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, is a businesswoman and a fellow political newcomer. She was appointed to her seat by Gov. Brian Kemp when Sen. Johnny Isakson retired at the end of last year, citing health concerns. Although President Trump had wanted Kemp to appoint one of his allies to the seat, Loeffler has made her mark in office by unabashedly embracing both Trump and the conservative culture wars that have defined much of his presidency. She’s made the most headlines as co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream; earlier this year she sent a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert slamming the politicization of the game, writing that the “Black Lives Matter political movement” does not align with the league or her team.
The runoff race has been defined by fierce blows between the Loeffler and Warnock campaigns.
Loeffler has repeatedly called Warnock a “socialist” and “the most radical and dangerous politician in America.” She has seized on various statements he’s made during church services, including some in which he criticized the police. And she wrote an open letter last week accusing Warnock of being anti-Semitic, a claim that some Jewish leaders in Georgia have rejected.
Many of the attacks against Warnock in particular have been criticized for invoking racial stereotypes in a state with a long history of oppressing its Black residents. A coalition of Black pastors came to Warnock’s defense, arguing that Loeffler’s attacks amount to a critique of the Black church, a charge that she denies. Warnock agreed with the pastors, tweeting that Loeffler’s attacks “are hurtful to Black churches.” He further told Yahoo News he wasn’t worried about the jabs.
“While Sen. Loeffler is busy calling me names, let me tell you where I stand,” he said. “I believe that in the greatest nation in the world people should have affordable health care, that Georgians who work hard every day deserve a livable wage, and that seniors ought to be able to afford the cost of prescription drugs. Kelly Loeffler may think that’s radical. I think it’s common sense.”
Warnock and the Democrats have launched their own sharp attacks against Loeffler, accusing her of “dumping stocks” after a confidential Senate briefing on the coronavirus last January, when the pandemic was in its infancy. Loeffler denies any wrongdoing and said the stock trades were done independently of any input from her.
She also found herself in hot water after posing with a photo with Chester Doles, a longtime white supremacist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance. While Loeffler said she did not know who Doles was, the Warnock campaign pushed back, noting that Doles was kicked out of a September campaign event. Yahoo News reached out to Loeffler’s campaign for comment but has not yet received a response.
Warnock also found himself in a small firestorm when police interview footage emerged last week from a March incident in which his ex-wife accused him of running over her foot with a car. Warnock denied running over her foot and was never charged. Loeffler called the allegations “deeply troubling”; Warnock’s campaign said Loeffler had “a new low of attacking his family.”
The list of blows between the two campaigns goes on and on, a reflection of both the stakes and the potential competitiveness of the races. Runoff elections are notoriously difficult to poll and predict, but a recent poll by Insider Advantage and Fox 5 Atlanta found Warnock leading Loeffler, 49 to 47 percent. Though Biden beat Trump in Georgia, Republican boosters in the runoffs may have reasons to be optimistic, given the party’s surprising strength in November congressional races and the Peach State’s historic GOP lean.
Fueling the attacks further are the tens of millions of dollars flooding into the campaigns’ coffers.
Warnock reported total receipts of more than $103 million between Oct. 15 and Dec. 16, easily beating Loeffler’s total of nearly $64 million. Both sides have more than enough resources to fill the airwaves.
And while there are two Democrats running, Warnock has attracted the brunt of the attacks as the lesser known of the two. The other Democrat is Jon Ossoff, who broke national fundraising records in a 2017 special election for the U.S. House and is now seeking to unseat Republican Sen. David Perdue.
An unlikely result of the runoffs has been the camaraderie between Ossoff, a young Jewish former congressional staffer from Atlanta, and Warnock, a middle-aged Black Baptist pastor from Savannah. Even though the two Democrats are running separate races, it almost feels as though the duo are running mates, looking to join forces to take down their Republican adversaries.
“I’ve been deeply honored to run alongside my friend Jon Ossoff,” Warnock told Yahoo News. “We’re both focused on our own races, but what matters is the people of Georgia.”
Warnock also said he believes Georgians aren’t thinking about the attacks dominating the airwaves as much as the financial and safety challenges facing their families this year.
“I don’t think the people of Georgia wake up in the morning wondering about Jon Ossoff or Raphael Warnock,” he said. “They’re wondering if their families are going to stay healthy, if they’ll be able to pay the bills, how they’re going to put food on the table.”
Below are key dates for Georgians to remember ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021:
(Cover thumbnail photo by Elijah Nouvelage via Getty Images)
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