OPINION: Raphael Warnock takes his place in history

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Let history record that Raphael Warnock may have been both the luckiest man in American politics over the last two years and the smartest. And make no mistake — he needed to be both to pull off the feat of becoming the only statewide Democrat of nine running to win in Georgia in an otherwise ruby-red 2022.

In defeating Herschel Walker 51% to 49%, Warnock also cemented his place in history as Georgia’s first Black U.S. Senator, this time with a full six-year term to deliver on the agenda he’s promised.

First for the lucky part. In his last two campaigns, Warnock has managed to draw two of the worst GOP nominees imaginable, UGA football legend Walker and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

In Loeffler, Warnock faced off against a wealthy, white, conservative and (at the time) robot-stiff billionaire. Loeffler has since become a far more seasoned communicator, but the 2021 runoff also came at the exact moment former President Donald Trump imploded on the public stage and took Loeffler’s ambitions down with him.

Two years later, Republicans nominated Walker with Trump cheerleading on the sidelines. Walker had no political experience, had lived in Texas for more than 30 years and, as Dr. Charles Bulloch said recently, had more skeletons in his past than closets to stash them in. He made national headlines for all the wrong reasons and eventually oversaw a campaign that even his staff didn’t couldn’t wait to end.

But along with the Republican duds who gave Warnock a path to the Senate, he also ran the only campaign that could have possibly won in this environment — a relentlessly disciplined and strategic operation.

Much like that of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Warnock’s campaign was pitched to a broad swath of Georgians, not just his political base, and focused on the pocketbook issues most people say they’re struggling with.

One of the strongest features of the Warnock campaign was the ads, crafted by Adam Magnus. Along with a heavy round of attacks resurfacing the accusations of abuse against Walker, Warnock’s camp also served up a heavy dose of feel-good spots.

Alvin the Beagle came back for another walk around the block. For a Thanksgiving ad, Warnock quoted the prophet Isaiah and simply wished people a happy holiday. Parents didn’t have to tell their children to leave the room. Warnock presented himself as someone Georgians could be proud of.

To get those spots on the air, Warnock also raised an unholy amount of cash — more than $150 million through mid-November. He raised more than any other candidate in the country and tripled Walker’s total.

Warnock’s campaign schedule, too, drove home the message that he was running for all Georgians’ votes, not just his Democratic base in Metro Atlanta. An early indication that Warnock would win Tuesday night came when returns from urban areas outside of Atlanta came in, including Athens, Savannah, Columbus, and Macon.

Not only were those cities in counties where Warnock expanded his margins over November, but they were also all places Warnock visited multiple times, including since November. And they delivered for him the second time around.

And in contrast to the far-right campaign that Walker ran, which focused on keeping transgender athletes out of sports, for example, Warnock chose to overtly chase the votes of not just Democrats, but also the independents and Republicans his team realized could be up for grabs, too.

Warnock talked in his victory speech Tuesday night about the history Georgia voters made by sending him back to the Senate alongside Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator.

“You are sending a clear message to the country about the kind of world we want for our children,” he said.

It seems fitting that Warnock now sits in the Senate seat once occupied by Rebecca Felton, the first-ever female U.S. senator in the nation. She was appointed for a single day of the Senate session in 1922. .

And there’s a certain poetry to the fact that Herman Talmadge won the same seat in 1956. Talmadge was such a staunch segregationist at the time that he wrote a book about it —“You and Segregation.”

Warnock, who will occupy the Talmadge seat for at least the next six years, wrote, “A Way out of No Way,” about, among other things, growing up Black in the Deep South.

The rest of the victory speech that Warnock delivered Tuesday night was another example of how he won, as well as an indicator of why he’s likely to rocket to national prominence once he returns to Washington.

Along with the well-connected and true believers packed into the Marriott Marquis ballroom, I noticed the entire catering staff in the ballroom, from bartenders to servers, stopped to listen to Warnock’s speech, too.

“I know for many these are hard times. Dark times,” he said. “But the scripture says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness overcometh it not and I know with all my heart that our best days are ahead of us.”

He told the people in the room and the ones watching online and on TV, “Here’s my promise to you. I will walk with you, even as I work for you.”

They say people will rarely remember what you say to them, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.

Warnock made the servers, who were just as much Georgia voters as the elite donors there, feel important Tuesday night. They were a part of the future of Georgia he was talking about. And they stayed with him until the end.

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