The 21-person special U.S. Senate election in Georgia is now a two-person, high-contrast race between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
As the top two finishers Tuesday night, Warnock and Loeffler won the chance to face off against each other in the Jan. 5 runoff for the seat Loeffler currently holds.
What happens between now and then is sure to be a wildly expensive and no-holds-barred contest, especially if Loeffler’s comments about Warnock on Tuesday night are any guide.
After taking the stage at her Buckhead victory party and heaping praise on Rep. Doug Collins, her main GOP rival up to then, as “a man of faith” who “supports our president and supported our country,” Loeffler pivoted quickly to attack Warnock as “the most radical candidate anywhere in the country.”
“I’m not going to let him get away with not exposing his radical policies and his agenda,” Loeffler told reporters at the end of the night. “His attack on police, his support of Jeremiah Wright’s doctrines of ‘God damn America.’ We’re going to make sure people understand what’s at stake here.”
Warnock responded to those attacks in an October debate and again in an interview Wednesday morning.
“Let me be clear," Warnock said. “She is trying to distract the voters of Georgia away from the fact that she profited from the pandemic and she is trying to get rid of their health care, especially for people with preexisting conditions, in the middle of a pandemic.”
“If you ask me, that’s what is radical and extreme," he added.
Warnock was referring to reports that Loeffler had traded stocks in her portfolio after receiving a senators-only briefing about the possible gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice eventually cleared Loeffler of wrongdoing after a federal investigation.
21 to one-on-one
Loeffler’s lightning-fast ascent from an Atlanta boardroom to a runoff for the Senate started in December, when Gov. Brian Kemp picked her to succeed ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, banking on her potential appeal to suburban Atlanta women and her ability to finance her own campaign as a multimillionaire financial services executive.
But Collins challenged Loeffler for the seat even without the governor’s blessing.
The result over the summer and into the fall was a bitter and personal intraparty clash, with caustic attacks and dueling claims over who was the most “pro-Trump,” even as 50% of Georgians said they disapprove of the job President Donald Trump was doing in office.
Loeffler derided Collins as a “failed Washington politician” and cast herself as a successful business executive with a “100% pro-Trump” voting record in her new job in the Senate.
She also ran a now-famous, and in hindsight effective, ad proclaiming that she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun.” Her stump speeches detailed her background growing up on a farm and going into business, but they also included a list of GOP base-pleasing legislation she’d introduced on everything from guns to China.
Loeffler also had the resources to push her message far and fast, spending $23 million of her own money, so far, to finance her campaign, with much more certain to come in the runoff portion of the campaign.
While Loeffler and Collins battled each other, Warnock beat back Democratic rivals and consolidated support with big-name endorsements such as Stacey Abrams, former President Barack Obama and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
He also ran a series of positive campaign ads, with one set in the Savannah housing project where he grew up, and he introduced himself to Georgia voters as the 11th of 12 children and first to go to college before eventually taking over the same pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father had both occupied.
Crucially, Warnock also managed to escape the first phase of the race largely unscathed by the Republicans, who were busy lobbing attacks at each other.
The race ahead will give Georgians a choice of who they want representing them in the Senate that could almost not be more stark — between a white, female, conservative Republican multimillionaire and a Black, male, liberal Democratic preacher.
What would that contrast look like in office?
“Georgians are trying to decide what each of us would do sitting in the Senate seat,” Warnock said. “I have spent my entire life dedicated to service.”
Among the issues Warnock says he would focus on in the Senate are the ones he’s advocated his entire career — access to affordable health care, expanding Medicaid, what he calls the “dignity of work,” and providing opportunity to every child, regardless of their parents' income or ZIP code.
And despite Loeffler’s far-right rhetoric up to now, she says she’ll be able to appeal to Georgians, no matter their politics, with a conservative agenda that she says would benefit all Georgians.
“I’m a businesswoman. I’ve lived the American dream,” she said. “That’s why we have to make sure that we put Americans at the center of our policymaking, not the government, not socialized medicine, not the Green New Deal, not high taxes and excessive regulation that crushes jobs and opportunity that lifts everyone up.”
As much as all political candidates talk about lifting people up, modern campaigns have a way of tearing people down, especially in a Senate race, and most especially in a race that could determine control of the chamber.
While Loeffler was giving her speech in Buckhead on election night, Warnock spoke to his own supporters in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood at nearly the same time, telling them that he fully expects divisive attacks to come from Republicans.
“While they try to tear me down I’m going to be busy trying to lift the families of Georgia up,” Warnock said. “Because we’re all we got.”