OPINION: Campaign notebook: A sermon on the trail from U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock

Credit: Curtis Compton / AJC

Credit: Curtis Compton / AJC

This is the first in a series of Campaign Postcards from the Georgia campaign trail. If all goes according to plan, it will include stops with all the major candidates and some minor ones, too.

It seems like U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is never far from church when he’s on the campaign trail. The freshman Democratic senator, who is still the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, frequently quotes scripture. He talks about God. And on good days, he inspires the people in front of him.

Even before he arrived at the “Seniors for Warnock” event in the Adamsville neighborhood Monday, it felt more like a pep rally than a campaign stop — if the cheerleaders were octogenarians. Line dancing broke out on the front row, while a campaign volunteer led a call-and-repeat with the mostly Black crowd. “When I say, ‘Warnock!’ you say, ‘Vote!’”

By the time Warnock got to the microphone, the crowd was ready.

“Wow!” he said, “I heard I was coming to see a group of seniors, but this is a rowdy bunch out here!”

It was the beginning of a week full of campaign stops and Senate votes in Washington, like nearly all of his weeks since he first won election in January of 2021.

Although he and fellow Democrat, U.S. Sen, Jon Ossoff, won their seats simultaneously last year, Warnock won only the final two years of the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s unexpired term.

He is now running for a full term against Republican nominee Herschel Walker. But in reality, Warnock’s 2020 campaign never ended.

The only difference now is that many of the promises he made two years ago are now promises he’s been able to keep, thanks to the Democratic Senate and President Joe Biden pushing them forward.

“Let me be clear, so that you’re clear that I’m clear, I work for you,” he tells them. “That’s why I wrote a law that caps the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. I kept pushing until that law got passed, because I work for you.”

Warnock never directly mentioned the spiraling rate of inflation or President Joe Biden, whose approval rating in Georgia is hovering around 36%. Instead, he talked about bring downing costs like student debt for families and prescriptions drugs for seniors.

One of the biggest applause lines came when he promised to protect women’s access to abortion, even though Walker’s most lancing attacks on Warnock have focused on his position as a “pro-choice pastor.”

Warnock has never said which limits to abortion, if any, he would support and did not on Monday, either.

“I trust women in their wisdom and their ability to sit with their own God, and if they choose, choose to sit with their pastor, to pray about that, and let their own conscience guide them,” Warnock said. “Even God gave us a choice.”

Warnock told the crowd Georgia needs a senator who is ready for the job and, like any good sermon, he finished big. “I want you to know that I’m ready... and what I need to know is, are you ready? Are you ready?”

The response from the voters in the crowd after the event sounded a lot like people who consider Warnock part of their own flock.

“I just feel like he has the type of character for that position, of senator, and then he will do what he’s saying he’s going to do,” said Sandra Reid, a 76-year-old Democrat from Atlanta. “And that not only that, but he’s a man of God, I do believe.”

Richard Cummings, 76, said he considers Warnock to be “an honest man, a Christian, and an all-around person.” And he singled out Warnock’s position on abortion.

“I think he stands for the right of women to choose what they want to do with their lives,” he said. “Any man who cares about his mother or sisters ought to think the same way Rev. Warnock does.”

Evelyn D. Brown, 86, said she likes that Warnock is still a pastor. “I think he is a bold Christian first and a man of integrity,” she said.

Elethia Boone, a retired educator, was born in Selma, Alabama.

“I’m here because I support all that he has stood for and all that he stands for, as far as civil rights, as far as humanity,” she said. “Perhaps he will be one of those individuals to help change the world.”

Not all events with Warnock are so high-volume. A recent rally in Rome was full of dedicated Democrats who responded with applause, but not line dancing and cheers.

On Tuesday, about 100 Korean seniors in Norcross listened as Warnock slowly told them about the insulin cost cap legislation he helped to pass, with a translator following behind.

“I’m not a senator who used to be a pastor,” he said. “I’m a pastor who serves in the US Senate.”

But one takeaway from watching Warnock at nearly any campaign event is that he is the kind of candidate you’d call a “happy warrior.”

Where some candidates scold and attack, he never goes long without a joke or a smile. And not unlike supporters of Herschel Walker or Donald Trump, Warnock’s supporters seem to leave his events happy, even inspired.

But as Election Day gets closer, the senator will need to do more than preach to his choirs, so to speak, to pull away from Herschel Walker with independent voters and even some Republicans. Recent polls have shown the two neck-and-neck in the contest.

Warnock never mentioned Walker directly in his campaign appearances Monday or Tuesday, but a press conference in Norcross revealed what we may hear at a debate between the two in October — the only one Walker has accepted so far.

“The people of Georgia have a very clear choice between me and Herschel Walker,” Warnock said, listing the ways the men differ in what they believe and the way they’ve lived their lives. “The differences couldn’t be more stark.”