'The Senate could certainly use a pastor': Georgia Democrat seeks to seize 'moral moment'

'The Senate could certainly use a pastor': Georgia Democrat seeks to seize 'moral moment'
© Courtesy Raphael Warnock

The 2020 Senate map is littered with political outsiders, ranging from businesspeople and military veterans to a former astronaut and a retired college football coach.

But the Rev. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockDemocrats face critical 72 hours Manchin shutting down Sanders on Medicare expansion Manchin says framework 'should' be possible this week MORE, a Democrat seeking to unseat Georgia Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerThune endorses Herschel Walker in Georgia Senate race Will Trump choose megalomania over country? I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 MORE (R), is hoping his background as a pastor and civil rights activist will appeal to voters in a time of mass uncertainty and unrest over a historic pandemic, systemic racism and police brutality. Warnock, 50, has a long history in the civil rights movement and currently preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — Martin Luther King Jr.’s former congregation.

In a Thursday interview with The Hill, Warnock said his past has prepared him well to serve as a senator, particularly during what he calls the “moral moment” in which the country finds itself.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There are in American history these inflection points. Pivotal moments when we have to decide again and again about whether we will stretch ourselves closer to meeting the ideals of the American covenant, of one people. We’re in such a moment,” he said.

Warnock is running in one of the most closely watched Senate race in the country, one that’s been dominated by GOP infighting between Loeffler and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE, a close ally of President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed Loeffler to finish the term of former Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonHerschel Walker calls off fundraiser with woman who had swastika in Twitter profile Georgia reporter says state will 'continue to be a premier battleground' Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms MORE (R), who retired last year, despite Trump openly calling for Collins to get the job.

Warnock is one of two leading Democratic contenders for the seat, alongside businessman Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (I). 

If no candidate secures a majority in the November vote, the top two, regardless of party, will head to a Jan. 5 runoff.

The pastor, who entered the Senate race in January, had no idea he'd be running during a pandemic that’s taken the lives of more than 118,000 people in the U.S., as well as a newly reignited conversation on race and the police — a discussion that hit close to home with the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. But he said he thinks the dual crises raise the urgency for a candidate like him to be sent to Washington. 

“I can tell you that what we’re doing currently is not working,” Warnock said. “We have enough professional politicians and we certainly have too much incestuous activity going on between those who operate in political backrooms and those who operate in corporate boardrooms. And I think the nation could use yet another moral voice, and the Senate could certainly use a pastor.”

One of a dozen children, Warnock grew up in public housing in Savannah. His father was a small businessman and a preacher, and his mother picked corn and tobacco.

He credits low-interest loans and Pell grants with helping him afford to go to Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta. He ultimately earned four degrees, including a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary.

He joined Ebenezer Baptist in 2005 and has been involved in a number of civil rights fights since, including leading a sit-in at the state legislature in 2014 to advocate for Medicaid expansion. 

Warnock’s campaign has found traction with establishment and progressive figures alike, gaining the endorsements of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and Democratic senators along the ideological spectrum including Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetBuilding back better by investing in workers and communities Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Colorado remap plan creates new competitive district MORE (Colo.), Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing MORE (N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWhich proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe Kamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech Biden's safe-space CNN town hall attracts small audience, as poll numbers plummet MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats face critical 72 hours The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal This week: Democrats aim to unlock Biden economic, infrastructure package MORE (Mass.).

Polling has been sparse in the race, with an internal survey commissioned by the Collins campaign showing Warnock in second place with 16 percent of the vote and a poll from Public Opinion Strategies finding him in fourth with 9 percent.

“Listen, if I don’t win in November, I will definitely make it to the runoff. Our state is split pretty much evenly in terms of electoral strength at this point. The other side knows the momentum is with us, that the wind is at our backs,” Warnock said. “If we go to a runoff, it’ll definitely be me and one of the other Republicans. Both of them are deeply flawed and I’m happy to run against either one of them.”

Democrats, who are seeking to turn Georgia into a presidential battleground, are anticipating high turnout this year with the state's other Senate seat also being contested. And the party is confident it can gain ground given excitement spurred by Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial bid in 2018 and changing demographics in the state.

According to figures from Fair Fight Action, a group founded by Abrams, more than 712,000 Georgia voters have registered to vote since the 2018 cycle, about 13 times the number of votes that Abrams lost by two years ago. And nearly half of the new voters are people of color or under 30, both demographics that broke hard for Democrats in 2018.

Strategists say the current crises facing the nation, and particularly the conversation over race, will also juice turnout among Democratic voters — and that Warnock may be uniquely positioned to ride that wave of enthusiasm.

“Reverend Warnock is prepared for this moment. It’s unique for him because he’s a pastor and he’s now running as a public servant to be an elected official. He has a unique opportunity to use his voice as a pastor, also his experience as a black man and his experience as a father to really bring a level of humanization that I believe will resonate with voters,” said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson.

Lieberman has also worked to cast himself as an effective leader, telling The Hill he’d work with “courage and moral conviction.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

“The recent protests show Georgians are fed up, and I expect we’ll see that at the ballot box in November. Systems aren’t working in this country, with fatal consequences, especially for Black Americans,” Lieberman said. “Georgians want leaders who put people over partisanship. That’s exactly the kind of leadership I will bring to the U.S. Senate.”

Warnock said the current moment could not only lead voters to his cause but also shift the balance of power in Washington.

“We’ve been hearing for a number of election cycles that this is the most important election of your lifetime, but it really feels to a lot of people that that is absolutely true and that the decisions in front of us are deeply consequential,” he said.

“Anytime you have NASCAR saying ‘we don’t want the confederate flag’ and you have Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyIn Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line Trump-backed bills on election audits, illegal voting penalties expected to die in Texas legislature The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government MORE saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ a term that was off limits just a few months ago, things are changing,” Warnock added. “The people are on the way back to reclaim their House and I think reclaim the Senate.”