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Of the two Democrats running for both Georgia’s seats in the US Senate – the seats that will decide how much Joe Biden can actually achieve in his first two years as president – Raphael Warnock is drawing the most sustained Republican fire.
A longtime minister, Mr Warnock serves as senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once a co-pastor with his father. Mr Warnock also attended King’s alma mater Morehouse College, before studying for a Masters of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary.
Mr Warnock is a father of two children he shares with his ex-wife Ouleye Ndoye, to whom he was married from 2016-2020. The pair’s acrimonious separation included an accusation from Ms Ndoye that Mr Warnock had run over her foot with a car during a heated argument. Mr Warnock has denied this claim, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the incident "didn’t happen”. Their divorce was finalised ahead of the November election.
Having polled top of a wide field in the 3 November polls, Mr Warnock is now facing down Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in the 5 January runoff for her seat, to which she was appointed at the start of 2020.
Ms Loeffler, the wealthiest member of the US Senate, has yanked her campaign sharply to the right in the last few months, appearing alongside hardcore right-wing candidates and running a widely ridiculed ad claiming to be “more conservative than Atilla the Hun”.
And as she fights to strengthen her somewhat thin reputation as a hardline Trumpist, her attacks on Mr Warnock have focused on his supposed “radicalism”, drawing in particular on his archive of sermons and writings.
Among the clips the Loeffler campaign have unearthed are a moment in which Mr Warnock accuses law enforcement of holding “a kind of gangster and thug mentality” – in context, he was in fact describing the mindset of an officer in Ferguson, Missouri who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014.
This, and other decontextualised quotes like it, fit the “law-and-order” theme deployed by Donald Trump since the anti-police protests of this summer, which periodically escalated into rioting. But Ms Loeffler’s inexperience as a retail politician may be hampering her ability to use the line to its full potential.
At her one head-to-head debate with Mr Warnock, Ms Loeffler – appointed to the seat in January – limited herself to a handful of attack lines, which she repeated over and over. She referred to him as “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” no fewer than 14 times, drawing mockery even from Fox News for her “robotic” performance.
Nonetheless, the “radical” line is at the centre of her attacks on Mr Warnock, and the TV ads deploying it are not subtle. One Loeffler spot, “Saving the Senate”, begins with a pan across a room of mostly white schoolchildren reciting the pledge of allegiance. “This is America”, intones an ominous voice. “But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate?”
Cut to Mr Warnock’s image imposed over images of street violence, accompanied by churning music and the assortment of out-of-context quotes, while the voiceover accuses the candidate of calling police officers “thugs and gangsters” and praising Marxism.
Threatening again that Mr Warnock represents the “radical” left, the video zooms in on his face and drives its message home: “Saving the Senate is about saving America from that.”
📺 NEW AD@ReverendWarnock called police “thugs” & “gangsters.” His church hosted & praised Fidel Castro. And he’s repeatedly praised Marxism.
Saving the Senate is about saving America from his radical agenda.
Help us keep this ad running: https://t.co/TgtXvi0NPG #gapol pic.twitter.com/lq3ETQt4Oi
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) November 12, 2020
Mr Warnock’s campaign had prepared audiences for this approach.
An ad that lit up the internet just after the 3 November election mocked the anticipated wave of Republican attacks. “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife!” declares a voiceover. “Raphael Warnock once stepped on a crack in the sidewalk! Raphael Warnock even hates puppies!”
And then the candidate smiles into the camera. “Get ready, Georgia! The negative ads are coming”. Pointing out that Ms Loeffler would sooner attack him than defend her own record, he winds up defending himself: “And by the way, I love puppies.”
Get ready Georgia. The negative ads against us are coming.
But that won’t stop us from fighting for a better future for Georgians and focusing on the issues that matter. pic.twitter.com/VN0YIA02MG
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) November 5, 2020
The dog returned in a sequel released after the bombardment of right-wing ads commenced. In this one, a cheery Mr Warnock goes further.
“I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are,” he said – dropping a bag of dog waste in a bin.
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) November 24, 2020
These upbeat efforts to shrug off a barrage of caustic, highly personal attacks have won Mr Warnock hundreds of thousands of likes on social media, and the warm, smiling pose they strike makes a stark contrast with the grim tone of the Republican campaign. He has also utilised his church and fraternity – he is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha – to propel his campaign.
But Mr Warnock’s case against Ms Loeffler and the Republican Party goes beyond a back-and-forth about negative TV ads. In an interview with the website The Grio, Mr Warnock gave a rather more blunt read of what’s going on.
“I’m not going to be distracted by the politics of fear and division,” he said. “We know what they’re doing. These are all ways of saying that ‘He’s something other than you.’
“And it’s really unfortunate that people are still trafficking in this kind of politics.”
The claims he preached left-wing extremism to his mostly black congregation, the juxtaposition of his face over footage of riots and looting, the misleading description of him as an anti-police zealot: the portrait Ms Loeffler’s campaign is painting strings together various tropes from racist campaigns of old.
And as has happened in many other elections, the black candidate being targeted has responded by rising above the fray and presenting himself as unthreatening to the point of gentleness. Hence, the dog.
As political scientist Michael Tesler explained in an extended analysis, the inclusion of a dog in his ads has helped Mr Warnock “deracialise” himself – not only because dog ownership is less common among Black Americans, but because his pet beagle tallies with the sort of dog Americans expect a white person to own.
As Joe Biden found in November, Georgia’s demographics have shifted in the Democrats’ favour. Most of the state’s white voters remain Republican-leaning, but its overall population has become younger and more diverse. Massive efforts to register more Black voters, in particular young ones, have paid dividends.
Nonetheless, it will be hard for Mr Warnock to win without piecing together a coalition that includes a good tranche of Georgia’s white people.
And while Mr Biden was able to peel away many 2016 Trump voters in suburbs across the US, his victory in Georgia was ultra-narrow. Mr Warnock needs to mobilise every voter he can without driving turnout among hardcore Trump supporters – and as has held true in many an American election for decades, that must include crafting a winning political persona that attracts both Black and white voters.