Opinion: The U.S. Senate race looming beyond the presidential election

062320 Atlanta: Rev. Raphael G. Warnock delivers the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks at his funeral in Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in Atlanta. Brooks, 27, died June 12 after being shot by an officer in a Wendy’s parking lot. Brooks’ death sparked protests in Atlanta and around the country. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer, said “Rayshard Brooks wasn’t just running from the police. He was running from a system that makes slaves out of people. A system that doesn’t give ordinary people who’ve made mistakes a second chance, a real shot at redemption.” Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

If you’re a Georgia Democrat, the combination of state election law and recent polling results in one of two U.S. Senate races makes for a heady, tantalizing brew.

Just don’t drink too deeply. This statewide contest is all but certain to require a high degree of sobriety well beyond New Year’s Day.

According to the latest Journal-Constitution survey, the race for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Kelly Loeffler is indeed the 21-candidate melee that it was prophesized to become.

Voter support for Loeffler and her chief GOP rival, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, was measured at 23% and 20% respectively. Though both are running as President Donald Trump’s most loyal friend and defender, when combined they soak up the support of a mere 43% of those surveyed.

In theory, there is opportunity in that figure. The race is a special election to fill out the final two years of the term won by Johnny Isakson in 2016. Under Georgia law, if a Democrat could cobble together 50% plus one vote on Nov. 3, he could take immediate possession of the seat.

And if wishes were vaccines, we’d all be COVID-free.

There are three Democrats of note in the race: The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (who won 20% support in the AJC poll); Matt Lieberman, an educator and son of Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator from Connecticut (11%); and Ed Tarver of Augusta, a former state senator and federal prosecutor (5%).

Warnock has been anointed by Democrats in Washington, and by Stacey Abrams at home. Yet the other two have refused to budge. (Even if they did, there’d still be 19 candidates in the race.)

“I may be more prepared for the issues that we face right now. There are a ton of legal and procedural issues that are being batted about,” Tarver told me. “Is this the time we want to elect someone to the U.S. Senate who has never served in a legislative body?”

Lieberman said he still has a chance to leapfrog over Warnock by doing well with the 16% of voters who have yet to make a choice, according to the poll. “For me, it’s a wide-open and dynamic race, with a lot of undecided Democratic voters,” he said.

You can’t blame them. To persuade someone to exit a race of this magnitude requires a large carrot or a big stick. The Democratic Party of Georgia is not yet in a position to wield either. (Also, its chairman is currently preparing to be the next member of Congress from Atlanta.)

Even the clout of a governor hasn’t been enough to clear the field. Ask Brian Kemp.

Kelly Loeffler, his hand-picked U.S. Senate candidate, was intended to lure the college-educated white women of suburbia back to the GOP fold. Instead, this week, she launched a 30-second TV spot in which she literally declared herself as conservative as a grunting Attila the Hun.

Whose fifth-century appeal to suburbanites has always been somewhat weak.

But the Hun was needed because Doug Collins, who threatens Loeffler’s right flank, hasn’t been cowed by the prospect of getting on the wrong side of a governor. Nor was the Georgia congressman, a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, enticed by President Trump’s dangling of a job as director of national intelligence.

And so pure, bipartisan stubbornness has — in all likelihood — doomed the Nov. 3 vote to become a race for two berths in a Jan. 5 runoff. The contest would grind through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and whatever hangover the presidential election hands us.

The cash, the attacks and one important number in the AJC poll tell us that the combatants in the final stretch to Nov. 3 will, in all probability, be Loeffler, Collins and Warnock.

Loeffler has Kemp’s backing and wealth enough to blanket the state with TV ads for the next six weeks. Collins has House Speaker David Ralston and a surprising number of Republican elected officials in his corner.

Warnock has Stacey Abrams, who has yet to make her presence felt in this contest. Warnock’s first TV ad didn’t hit until mid-August, but already Black voters are lining up behind him.

In the AJC poll, 39% of African Americans supported Warnock. Lieberman was next — but with only 18%. Just as important, Warnock registered 12% support among white voters — behind only Loeffler (33%) and Collins (27%).

If you don’t believe in polls when it comes to Warnock, believe Tucker Carlson. On Monday night, the Fox News host strung together a series of tidbits from Warnock’s sermons delivered at Ebenezer — focusing on those critical of police.

One highlighted excerpt was delivered in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015. “So in Ferguson, police power — showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality. You can wear all kinds of colors and be a thug. You can sometimes wear the colors of the state and behave like a thug,” Warnock was shown saying.

In the current Black Lives Matter climate, the pastor’s remarks now seem relatively tame. We also remember NRA’s Wayne LaPierre using much the same language — and more — when speaking about members of law enforcement who exceeded their authority.

Nonetheless, Carlson aimed a harrumph at Warnock. “That’s his Christian sermon, his Gospel,” the TV host said.

It was a brief, first Fox News spotlight on Warnock. Yet it was also recognition of what might await us. On Nov. 4, beyond the presidential contest.

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