Raphael Warnock, pastor of famed church, enters Georgia Senate race

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic church, entered one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races on Thursday with hopes of unifying Georgia Democrats in one of the nation’s premier 2020 contests.

Warnock launched his campaign against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler with a video that detailed his path from public housing in Savannah to the pulpit of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and a pledge to turn his progressive preaching into policy.

“This is going to be hard work. And it should be. Anybody running for office knows that it’s hard work,” Warnock said in an interview. “But I’ve always understood that my service extends far beyond the doors of the church.”

He enters the race with the coveted endorsement of Stacey Abrams, the party's 2018 gubernatorial nominee, who called the reverend a "leader who sees all of us and serves all of us."

His candidacy presents another test for Loeffler, a Republican financial executive who has never sought public office before. A day earlier, she drew a challenge from U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a conservative four-term congressman.

Warnock said he plans to maintain his leadership role at Ebenezer, the spiritual home of King, a move that will invite more scrutiny of the famed Atlanta congregation.

“I’ve always thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s actually where it starts,” he said. “I love this country, and I believe that what makes America so great is that we’ve always had a path to make it greater.”

The pastor’s plan to run, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, further scrambles an unpredictable special election. With no primary to hash out nominees, multiple candidates from each party will share the same November ballot.

And Collins' bid, unveiled Wednesday on Fox News, triggers a Republican showdown between a veteran lawmaker who is a favorite of grassroots conservatives and a wealthy newcomer backed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Both Republicans are aggressively courting President Donald Trump, who repeatedly urged the governor to tap Collins to succeed retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson but has stayed neutral since Loeffler took office earlier this month.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins will soon announce a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, setting up a bitter Republican showdown in November that pits one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders against a wealthy former executive backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The bitter GOP infighting is welcome news to some Democrats who see Warnock as a unifying force who can energize the party’s base while appealing to moderate voters who transformed Atlanta’s suburbs into the state’s foremost battleground.

Still, the pastor will have his own internal fissures to contend with.

At least two other prominent Democrats plan to qualify for the race: Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur and son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Ed Tarver, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Obama administration. Other lesser-known Democrats could join the field. 

Activist preacher

The son of two pastors, Warnock said he was inspired by his parents and King to join the ministry. He was tapped in 2005 at the age of 35 to lead Ebenezer, and he embraced his church’s legacy of social activism.

Over the past 15 years, he's led voter registration drives, advocated for the expansion of Medicaid, forcefully opposed capital punishment, hosted a climate change summit with Al Gore and pushed for an overhaul of criminal justice policy.

He also grew close to leading state Democrats and seemed on the verge of challenging Isakson in 2016.

Warnock hinted to his congregation then that he would likely run, courted prominent politicians, and as the keynote speaker at a party fundraiser, gave an "everything but" speech – as in, he did everything but announce his bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

After months of speculation, though, he decided against a bid. The party turned to a little-known business executive who got clobbered by Isakson.

Now, Georgia Democrats are emboldened by soaring turnout in the 2018 election and eager to seize an unexpected opportunity to flip Isakson’s seat after he retired last year because of failing health.

JANUARY 20, 2014 ATLANTA Podium guests including Sofia Campos (from left), Mayor Kasim Reed, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Dr. Bernice King, Senator Johnny Isakson, Bahamas Consul General Randy Rolle and Rev. Anthony Motley join members of the audience in singing "We Shall Overcome" at the conclusion of the 46th annual Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, January 20, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM


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Warnock, 50, is expected to amplify the blend of policies Abrams used to draw a record number of Democratic votes in the 2018 race for governor. That included a push to expand Medicaid, advocate for voting rights and pursue economic incentives for disadvantaged Georgians.

In his opening video, filmed from the Kayton Homes housing project in Savannah where he grew up, the minister said “struggling families across Georgia have it harder now than I did back then” as he nodded to his campaign policies.

“My father used to tell me every morning: ‘Whatever it is, be ready.’ I think Georgia is ready,” Warnock said, adding that he was “ready to fight for the dignity of workers who are paid too little and pushed aside as government works for Wall Street corporations.”

Runoff ahead?

Abrams was intensely involved in recruiting Warnock, and he’ll use her endorsement to try to consolidate Democratic support to flip the seat, which the party sees as crucial to upending the GOP’s 53-47 control of the Senate.

"Wherever there is need, Reverend Warnock can be found on the front lines," she said in a note to supporters. "And that's where we need him at this moment. On the front lines of the battle for the soul of America." 

Warnock’s allies say his unconventional role as a minister could also help him present policies to Georgians in a nonpartisan way, giving him inroads to evangelicals and other voters who have bolted the Democratic Party.

But he’ll face significant challenges raising campaign cash to finance a race that’s expected to smash Georgia records against an incumbent who promises to pour at least $20 million of her own cash into the contest.

11/02/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Churchspeaks during a rally for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Forbes Arena at Morehouse College, Friday, November 2, 2018.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

He’ll also confront immediate questions about how he’ll appeal to independent voters who could swing the election, with Republicans sure to portray him as too liberal for Georgia.

“As the Democratic Party continues to embrace a socialist agenda, Raphael Warnock will be unable to distance himself from the radicals running for president,” said Nathan Brand of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs Loeffler.

The number of candidates increases the likelihood of a January 2021 runoff if no one captures a majority of the vote, though Democratic leaders have privately urged Lieberman and Tarver to drop out of the race and give Warnock a clearer field.

Several other possible rivals faced the same pressure and recently announced they would sidestep a race, including DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston and state Sen. Jen Jordan, paving the way for Warnock's bid.

There’s a slim chance that the election rules could soon be rewritten. Collins’ allies in the Georgia House are pushing legislation that would require a party primary that would help the congressman, though Kemp has vowed to veto the measure.

The Democrats' push to circle the wagons around Warnock is a contrast to Georgia's other U.S. Senate race. Abrams and national figures have stayed neutral in that contest as three leading Democrats battle to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive seeking a second term in November.

‘Standing where Dr. King stood’

Warnock's decision to stay in the pulpit of his congregation gives him a prominent platform through the campaign and a distinct way to connect with voters. It also raises a host of challenges.

It would still be legal for Warnock to preach and run as a Democrat against Loeffler. But Warnock would risk penalties from the Internal Revenue Service if he uses church resources for his campaign or overtly preaches politics while in the pulpit.

His decision also means his Sunday sermons could fast become Monday campaign trail fodder.

It was at Ebenezer earlier this month, during the annual King Day service, where Warnock offered a preview of his 2020 message. With Loeffler sitting a few feet behind him, Warnock urged his audience not to give "lip service" to King's legacy.

“It’s MLK weekend, and everybody wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood. That’s fine. You’re welcome,” he said.

“But if today you would stand in this holy place, where Dr. King stood, make sure that come tomorrow, we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”