The Jolt: Raphael Warnock prepares to run for Senate against Kelly Loeffler

July 18, 2019 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. Raphael Warnock at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday, July 18, 2019. The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock has had busy couple of weeks. After co-hosting a conference on ending mass incarceration in the United States, he was off to Baltimore. And less than 24 hours ago, he was back at Ebenezer for the 45th annual scholarship concert honoring the memory of the late Christine Williams King, affectionately known as Mama King, who was assassinated there 45 years ago. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

<i>News and analysis from the AJC politics team</i>

Two months after Gov. Brian Kemp picked self-funding businesswoman Kelly Loeffler as a replacement for Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate, the field of Democrats willing to challenge her may be solidifying.

One of your Insiders reported over the weekend that the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, was taking concrete steps toward joining the race.

The story also noted that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has for months tried to recruit a top contender for the seat, appears to be focusing on Warnock. From the piece:

Warnock... is the favorite of both national party figures and influential local politicians — among them Stacey Abrams, who declined to comment through a spokesman.

Warnock flirted with a challenge to Isakson in 2016 and dropped hints he could soon join the contest. He's said to be talking to consultants to prepare for a possible bid, and several local activists say he's been courted by the DSCC, the political arm of Senate Democrats which has scrambled to find a high-profile contender.

Both Warnock and a spokesman for the DSCC have declined comment.

In Friday afternoon's edition of GPB's "Political Rewind," host Bill Nigut threw this thought into the mix:

"[Warnock] told me a number of weeks ago that, maybe just entering the race makes a big statement if you run your campaign correctly, even if you don't end up winning. That's an interesting way to approach it." 

But in the eyes of Democratic movers-and-shakers, an Abrams endorsement would likely cement Warnock as the frontrunner even if contenders such as educator Matt Lieberman and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver stay in the race -- as both have said they will.

Others, though, may have a change of heart: State Sen. Jen Jordan has already said she won’t run, and DeKalb chief executive Michael Thurmond might not, either.

"I don't know that it's going to be crowded," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, who heads the Democratic Party of Georgia. "We've got a long time before qualifying. We are going to put our best foot forward because we know our ideas are stronger than Republican ones and we align with more Georgians than they do."

It's not likely a formal announcement would come until next week -- after Warnock gives the welcome at a nationally-watched Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony at Ebenezer. Also set to attend: Kelly Loeffler, the Republican senator he could challenge.

***

Over at PeachPod, host Kyle Hayes interviews Matt Lieberman, the aforementioned Democratic candidate in U.S. Senate No. 2. Like his father, former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Matt Lieberman expressed support for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Said the candidate:

"I think it is a good thing that the American military took out Soleimani and the other man who was with him who goes by the moniker - who went by the moniker - Abu Mahdi."

But Lieberman also said this:

"[I]f I were in the United States Senate today, I would absolutely be right there with my Democratic colleagues, saying that Trump cannot expand this act into something more than an isolated act without getting authority from the Congress..."

***

The 2020 session of the state Legislature begins in a few minutes. Budget woes are expected to take center stage, and we could be in for a long slog. There is the possibility that lawmakers could still be deliberating when the Georgia presidential primary arrives on March 24.

In the past, when the Republican nomination has been at stake, candidates have often been invited to address one or both chambers. But President Donald Trump was declared the winner of the March contest last November. No other candidates will be permitted on the ballot.

Democrats aren’t likely to be offered the same courtesy this year. But given the presence of the state’s political reporters and TV cameras that blanket north Georgia, presidential campaigns are likely to engage in more than a few drive-by appearances.

One model for that strategy might be Hillary Clinton's 2016 visit just before the primary. While she wasn't invited to give an address to either chamber, the Democrat trekked next door to meet with supporters at City Hall. 

***

Much of the first day of a 40-day session of the Legislature is devoted to agenda setting:

-- The AJC doesn't do this often, which means we consider the issue pretty important. Editor Kevin Riley has a front-page editorial calling for the Legislature "to repair the broken system that should protect vulnerable residents of the state's assisted living and large personal care homes." From the piece:

You have an opportunity to make this reform the centerpiece of your leadership this year.

Because lives are at stake, this issue should rank at least as high as the state Constitution's requirement to pass a balanced budget.

It is that important.

-- Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, told the Rome News-Tribune that he has two bills in mind, both intended to offset budget cuts ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp. Said the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee:

"I don't think we have a revenue problem. We have a collection problem," he said.

A bill enabling sales tax collection from third-party sellers such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy — marketplace facilitators — could bring in at least $150 million more a year, he said…

Another bill would nudge the Georgia Department of Revenue into a previously approved data analytics program to identify vendors who aren't remitting all their sales tax due to the state.

-- House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, told the Newnan Times-Herald that he intends to introduce legislation that would bar suspended state officials under indictment from continuing to receive a paycheck. He has an example in mind:

Jim Beck took office in January 2019 and was suspended in May, two days after being indicted on charges of fraud. He has proclaimed his innocence. Though he is not performing the job he was elected to do, and an acting commissioner has been named, Beck is still getting his salary, Trammell said.

"We are paying two people to do his job," he said.

-- The Georgia Recorder quotes state School Superintendent Richard Woods as saying that the lawmakers need to increase transportation funding to ease the financial strain on rural communities. A key number:

Statewide, busing costs soared the last two decades, with local districts covering $945 million of nearly $1.1 billion in expenses during the last school year.

***

Ivanka Trump, daughter of the president, will be in Atlanta on Tuesday for a south Fulton County event focusing on human trafficking. Gov. Brian Kemp will also be there -- as well as his U.S. Senate appointee, Kelly Loeffler.

***

The race for retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Graves' northwest Georgia seat is heating up quickly.

We’re told that state Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, could soon join the contest. Dallas Mayor Boyd Austin, the former president of the Georgia Municipal Association, appears likely to jump in the race, too.

And Matt Laughridge, an auto dealer and former state Senate candidate, is also eyeing a run.

Other announced candidates include former prosecutor Clayton Fuller and Marjorie Taylor Greene, an ex-Sixth District candidate who switched races once Graves announced his plans to retire.

Early this morning, we ran into state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, outside the state Capitol. He’s a definite no.

***

New Sandy Springs resident Cardi B tweeted early this morning that she is interested in running for Congress one day.

"I do feel like if I go back to school and focus up I can be part of Congress. I deadass have sooo much ideas that make sense. I just need a couple of years of school and I can shake the table," she wrote.

The Grammy Award-winning rapper, who recently bought an estate near Chastain Park, said she would explain her thoughts on politics in a forthcoming video.

***

Apologizing on social media for comments made on Fox News networks didn't take all the heat off of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, over the weekend.

What one of President Donald Trump's chief defenders in Congress said -- that Democrats are "in love with terrorists" -- and how he chose to apologize were still being debated. Because Collins posted his mea culpa on social media, Collins was accused of trying to have his cake and eat it too -- quieting critics from the left without upsetting conservative Fox viewers who agree with his initial comments.

"At least Collins gets a little bit of credit for apologizing, finally, but that's the lowest possible bar because we're not used to it and ... he didn't do it on Fox, he only did it on Twitter," CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said Saturday.

***

The Brunswick News reports that plans for a spaceport on the Georgia coast are failing to reach escape velocity:

A longtime critic of a proposed spaceport in Camden County believes the odds of a commercial rocket launch are now "one in a million."

Steve Weinkle, who lives less than 10 miles from the proposed spaceport, said the project was already in trouble before the county chose to revise its application to the Federal Aviation Administration in December.

Camden is changing its focus to small launch vehicles, which county officials said pose fewer environmental and safety concerns.

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