'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 Warnock, a Democrat seeking to unseat Georgia Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerLoeffler knocks WNBA players for wearing shirts backing Democratic challenger WNBA players wear 'Vote Warnock' shirts in support of Loeffler Democratic challenger Trump and Biden tied in Georgia: poll 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.

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“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 knocks WNBA players for wearing shirts backing Democratic challenger WNBA players wear 'Vote Warnock' shirts in support of Loeffler Democratic challenger Sunday shows preview: White House, Democratic leaders struggle for deal on coronavirus bill MORE, a close ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed Loeffler to finish the term of former Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonWNBA players wear 'Vote Warnock' shirts in support of Loeffler Democratic challenger Trump and Biden tied in Georgia: poll Biden campaign staffs up in Georgia 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. 

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“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 BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help MORE (Colo.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerUSAID appointee alleges 'rampant anti-Christian sentiment' at agency OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA rule extends life of toxic coal ash ponds | Flint class action suit against Mich. officials can proceed, court rules | Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill MORE (N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandBiden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMichelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate Michelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' Harris endorses Democrat in tight California House race MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump says government to review 5M Kodak loan deal Michelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again 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.” 

“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 RomneyNRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  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.”