Who could challenge Raphael Warnock in 2022

Rev. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican Kelly Loeffler in Georgia
Rev. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican Kelly Loeffler in Georgia

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock was one half of a shocking Democratic sweep during Georgia’s epic Jan. 5 runoffs. Now he’s preparing for a brutal re-election campaign for a full six-year term.

While fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won’t face the voters again until 2026, Warnock must run again next year to keep his seat in the U.S. Senate. That’s because his victory over GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler was to fill the remainder of retired Republican Johnny Isakson’s term.

Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, will be a formidable candidate. He’s got sky-high name recognition, the power of incumbency, a robust political network and a hefty fundraising list after his victory made him the first Black U.S. senator in Georgia history.

But Republicans are already jockeying for the chance to reclaim the seat. And the decision by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to forgo a campaign cleared the way for other GOP contenders to run for the seat.

Warnock doesn’t mince words: “I am prepared to defeat whatever Republican they come up with.”

Here’s our evolving list:

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler

Loeffler forming her own voter advocacy group
Loeffler forming her own voter advocacy group

The former financial executive was tapped by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill Isakson’s seat in hopes of winning back women and more moderate voters who were disgusted by former President Donald Trump.

Instead, Loeffler’s short stint in the Senate turned into a race to the party’s right, as she dueled with then-U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for the hearts of conservatives and pumped more than $31 million of her own money into her campaign.

Defeated by Warnock, she spent the next few weeks quietly devising a new project, called Greater Georgia, to energize conservatives, build a new grassroots infrastructure and promote GOP elections proposals that critics say are overly restrictive.

She’s said she’s weighing a comeback bid but that “I don’t know if any Republican can win if we don’t shore up what we’re doing around voter registration, engagement and election integrity.”

Former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins

11/05/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia —  U.S. Congressman Doug Collins speaks during a Republican rally in the parking lot at the Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, Thursday, November 5, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/05/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — U.S. Congressman Doug Collins speaks during a Republican rally in the parking lot at the Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, Thursday, November 5, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A four-term Republican congressman from the conservative bastion of Gainesville, Collins aggressively pitched himself for the open U.S. Senate seat – and was spurned by Kemp despite Trump’s initial support.

He and his allies pilloried Loeffler as a squishy moderate long before he entered the Senate race, and the two exchanged vicious barbs throughout the 2020 campaign.

After a third-place finish, Collins campaigned for Loeffler in the runoffs and also led Trump’s recount efforts in Georgia, appearing at a “Stop the Steal” rally days after the election.

He’s told the AJC he’s considering a run for Senate or a primary challenge to Kemp, an idea endorsed by Trump at his runoff rally in Georgia. In the meantime, Collins has joined a new law practice and will host a radio show.

Attorney General Chris Carr

Attorney General Chris Carr talks at a press conference at the State Capital Tuesday, November 24, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Attorney General Chris Carr talks at a press conference at the State Capital Tuesday, November 24, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A former economic development commissioner, Carr was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to the open seat and then defeated Democrat Charlie Bailey in a nail-biter to win a full four-year term.

Carr was a former top aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and has tried to embrace his mantra as a mainstream conservative and consensus builder. But his defense of Georgia’s election law has also given him newfound national attention and a pro-Trump talking point.

Should he decide to run – and we’re told he hasn’t ruled it out – he would likely rely on the same political network that he helped Isakson build over decades in public office.

Herschel Walker

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donal Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donal Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia Republicans have been buzzing with the rumor that the Georgia football legend - and friend of Trump - could challenge Warnock next year. And the former president has chimed in, urging Walker to join the fray.

We’ve heard the talk for weeks, mostly from the pundit class and others trying to egg him on. And our attempts to reach Walker have so far gone unanswered.

Walker emerged as a voice for far-right conservative causes during Trump’s term in the White House and spoke up for the president at last year’s Republican National Convention.

He’s also been a key backer of Loeffler - he cut an ad for her last year - and Kemp. And he has iconic status across much of Bulldog Nation.

Many skeptical Republicans point to the last rumored Georgia legend to run for office – an aborted attempt to convince former coach Mark Richt to campaign.

But he also has a powerful ally: Former President Donald Trump has encouraged him to enter the race. “Run Herschel run,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point
U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, one of the top Republicans in the House, is said to be seriously considering a Senate bid -- though that would mean abandoning his dreams of moving up the ranks of House leadership.

A dentist and former West Point mayor, Ferguson has skyrocketed up the ladder since his 2016 election and is now the chamber’s GOP chief deputy whip. He’s also long been an ally to former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, another potential contender, and the two are unlikely to run against each other.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, speaks at a news conference in Glynn County on Tuesday after Tropical Storm Irma.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, speaks at a news conference in Glynn County on Tuesday after Tropical Storm Irma.

A former mayor the Savannah suburb of Pooler, Carter served in the state Legislature before he was elected to represent a coastal district in 2014, making him the only pharmacist in Congress at the time.

People close to him say he’s seriously exploring a challenge and developing a campaign team, and that he’s also notified Trump and top state Republicans that he’s considering a bid.

Latham Saddler

Latham Saddler
Latham Saddler

Hardly known in Georgia political circles, Saddler is a Navy SEAL and former White House fellow who now is an executive at the Synovus banking firm.

The one-time University of Georgia student body president announced his bid in April for the office, and outlined a campaign that would focus on his military background and his outsider appeal among a field of higher-profile Republicans.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, right, talks with Pete Chagnon of New Life FM radio at the Georgia Grown Farmers Showcase which features agricultural products from all corners of Georgia coming together under one shed for one day on Saturday, July 27, 2013, at the Atlanta State Farmers Market. David Tulis / AJC Special
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, right, talks with Pete Chagnon of New Life FM radio at the Georgia Grown Farmers Showcase which features agricultural products from all corners of Georgia coming together under one shed for one day on Saturday, July 27, 2013, at the Atlanta State Farmers Market. David Tulis / AJC Special

The popular agriculture commissioner has built a base of support in rural Georgia over three terms in office – and 40 years in the farm business – that would come in handy during a Republican primary.

He’s championed a “Georgia Grown” initiative since he took office in 2011 and has backed conservative causes in the Legislature and on the campaign trail. But he has far lower visibility in vote-rich areas like metro Atlanta.

Black was one of the first GOP officials to endorse Collins’ Senate bid last year, and they remain close, so he’s not expected to run if his old friend throws his hat in the ring.

State Sen. Burt Jones

Sen. Burt Jones, R - Jackson, presents legislation that would legalize sports betting in Georgia. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Sen. Burt Jones, R - Jackson, presents legislation that would legalize sports betting in Georgia. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

A veteran middle Georgia lawmaker, Jones is a former Georgia football captain and heir to Jones Petroleum Co. who is able to leverage plenty of personal wealth and deep conservative roots in a run for higher office.

He’s also closely aligned with Trump, earning applause from the former president in 2020 when he led a group of GOP senators urging Kemp to call a special legislative session to overturn the election results.

Jones has flirted with runs for statewide office before, including a potential bid for lieutenant governor in 2018. This time around, he seems likelier to run for LG or another statewide post. But he’s keeping his options open.

Kelvin King

November 8, 2019 Atlanta: President Donald Trump looks on while supporter and business owner Kelvin King joins him on stage to speak during the Black Voices for Trump Coalition Rollout on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
November 8, 2019 Atlanta: President Donald Trump looks on while supporter and business owner Kelvin King joins him on stage to speak during the Black Voices for Trump Coalition Rollout on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The owner of a metro Atlanta construction company, King has become a major figure in state Republican politics and is one of Trump’s most prominent Black supporters in Georgia.

His wife, Janelle King, is also a well-known conservative activist who recently joined the weekly ‘Georgia Gang’ show. Together, the two run Speak Georgia, a political outreach group.

An Air Force veteran, King announced his campaign in April with a plan to tap into David Perdue’s “outsider” mold as a business executive.

Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston

U.S. Senate candidate Jack Kingston is all smiles as he arrives at his election night party site in the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
U.S. Senate candidate Jack Kingston is all smiles as he arrives at his election night party site in the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The genial former congressman narrowly lost the U.S. Senate runoff to David Perdue in 2014, and then emerged as one of Trump’s go-to surrogates on cable TV for much of the presidential campaign.

He’s long advocated for a big-tent conservative approach, marketing himself as a Republican who can effectively communicate with Democrats, moderates and independents.

Kingston, who applied with Kemp for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2019, would likely focus a campaign on his grassroots organization skills and close ties to the president, though his recent lobbyist work will be a liability.

Chief Justice Harold Melton

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton after he delivered the annual state of the judiciary address before a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in 2019. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton after he delivered the annual state of the judiciary address before a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in 2019. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Almost as soon as Melton announced he would step down from the state Supreme Court bench, texts ping-ponged across the statehouse speculating whether the longtime judge was leaving his seat on the bench for a bid for Senate.

Though Melton made clear in interviews he was eager to help put his three kids through college – code for joining the private sector – he briefly considered applying for the open Senate seat in 2019.

A former lawyer for the state Attorney General’s office, Melton was serving as Perdue’s executive counsel when the Republican tapped him in 2005 for an open seat to join the state’s highest court.

Though supporters have floated Melton’s name, seeing him as a formidable candidate who can help expand the GOP’s base, he’s not likely to run. A close ally said he’s had no serious conversations about campaigning for the seat.

Who is not running for the seat:

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Once a back-bencher in the Georgia House, the former professional baseball player won a surprising runoff victory in 2018 over David Shafer and then raced to a general election win.

In Georgia’s No. 2 job, he’s allied himself tightly to Kemp and was one of the most prominent early supporters of Loeffler even as he’s butted heads with fellow Republicans in the fractious Georgia Senate he presides over.

He earned national attention – and Trump’s fury – during the runoffs as he appeared frequently on cable news to counter false claims of widespread voter fraud and urge Republicans to stand up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.

Now, he often talks of a “GOP 2.0” that tilts further away from Trump and toward big-tent conservativism. He said in March he wouldn’t run for the U.S. Senate; his other options include running for another term or packing it in.

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