The Rev. Raphael Warnock just days ago shared the same stage with three former presidents. He’s got one of the most prominent pulpits in the South, support from every prominent Georgia Democrat who has taken a side and the backing of more than half of his party’s contingent of U.S. senators.
And yet head-scratching signs have emerged as Warnock competes in a 21-candidate special election to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in November. Recent polls show him neck-and-neck against Democrat Matt Lieberman, a little-known educator whose father Joe was a former vice presidential nominee.
Once, Lieberman was viewed as a political afterthought by leading Democrats, who figured he’d drop out of the race or fade from the radar. That could still happen, as Warnock has not yet spent any significant money on airtime. He’s set aside at least $2.6 million for his first major TV ad buy this month.
Still, Lieberman’s apparent staying power has bewildered some Democrats, though that could fast change. Lieberman is facing more insistent calls to drop out of the race -- not to clear the field for Warnock but because of a self-published 2018 novel involving a racist character and an imaginary slave.
This week, the head of Georgia’s NAACP chapter said the book was so problematic that Lieberman should withdraw his candidacy. And Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic Party and is officially neutral in the contest, condemned the book’s “racist and discriminatory tropes” and called Lieberman’s writing offensive.
The criticism emerged after the most recent Georgia survey of the contest, a Monmouth University poll released in late July, pegged Lieberman ahead of Warnock by 6 percentage points. Another Democrat, former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver, lags further behind.
“If I were advising Lieberman or Tarver, I would tell them not to bank on the current polls. But I’m also not sure how this will play out in the jungle primary,” said Ceasar Mitchell, a former Atlanta City Council president and Democratic strategist.
“Does the Democratic candidate get squeezed out? Is there a scenario where both Republicans get to the runoff as the current poll potentially suggests?” Mitchell said. “I don’t know.”
There’s reason for the Democratic hand-wringing. With no primary to tap nominees, nearly two dozen candidates competing for Loeffler’s seat are on the same jumbled ballot, and if none receives a majority of the vote, the top two finishers land in a January runoff.
Party leaders hope to consolidate support behind Warnock for two reasons: First, to ensure that the runoff wasn’t an all-Republican affair between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is also polling strongly. And secondly, for the outside chance that a unified Democratic ticket could win outright.
The muddled dynamics are one reason that Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a product of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, recently projected a Republican is likely to win the contest. Kyle Kondik, a political scientist, said the poll numbers, for now, give Republicans a shot at crowding out Democrats.
“Democrats have work to do to just get into the runoff, and if they get there, they have to deal with the same turnout problems that have beguiled them in past runoffs,” Kondik said, referring to the GOP’s recent dominance in Georgia runoff votes. “So the Republicans have a few important backstops in this race.”
State Democratic leaders aren’t panicking. Interviews with a dozen party officials, many who asked to speak privately, revealed a level of concern about Warnock’s poll numbers mixed with confidence they’ll begin to rise once his campaign floods the airwaves.
Several pointed to the challenges of a pandemic, which has effectively ended in-person campaigning for the Democrat. (Both Collins and Loeffler, by contrast, have had several statewide tours and multiple small-scale rallies over the past few weeks.)
Others note that despite Warnock’s pedigree as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the legendary Atlanta institution where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, he’s also a first-time political candidate unknown to many Georgians outside of civic and religious circles.
“You’ll always have folks who say you need to do more,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a veteran Democratic legislator who supports the pastor. “He’s doing an excellent job, and he’s moving along. He’s got a sound strategy, and he knows you’ve got to pick your spots with so many people in the race.”
Warnock’s campaign points to a different set of metrics beyond the scattered polls. He has outraised the entire field — including Collins and Loeffler — since he entered the race in January. He’s won dozens of endorsements from politicians, donors and party activists.
And the pastor has benefited from the outspoken support of Senate Democratic leaders and Stacey Abrams, who helped ensure last year that other prominent candidates didn’t jump in the contest before Warnock did.
Abrams’ support has paid other dividends, too. Last week, she helped advise WNBA players on an attention-grabbing initiative that roiled the sports world. Dozens wore “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to rebuke Loeffler, a co-owner of the league’s Atlanta franchise, the Dream, who has sharply criticized the WNBA’s promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the two days after that protest, Warnock’s campaign said it raised nearly $200,000 from more than 3,500 new donors and expanded his Twitter following by 3,500 new accounts.
“The Democrats in this race haven’t been spending anything. I don’t see the numbers meaning very much at this point,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “As we go forward, we’re going to see Warnock spending more money. And I expect him to pull ahead.”
A former lawyer and religious school principal, Lieberman doesn’t deny his standing in the polls is helped by his famous last name. His father, Joe Lieberman, represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate for four terms and was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000.
But he also credits a hefty head start. When he announced his bid in October, he was the first Democrat to enter the race. Gov. Brian Kemp hadn’t yet chosen Loeffler, a wealthy financial executive, to fill the seat U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson vacated for health reasons. A dozen or so other Democratic officials were maneuvering for position.
“Others waited for word from on high as to whether they’d be given the seat. They had a clubby logic,” Lieberman said. “But in the regular world, voters are going to judge which candidate is best. And my campaign isn’t about a need for anyone’s favor or approval other than the voters.”
Both Lieberman and Warnock have staked out similar positions on some issues, including calls for new gun limits, an end to anti-abortion restrictions and a new voting rights package. Lieberman said his background as a party outsider also will help him “attract enough independents and anti-Trump Republicans to actually win.”
But Lieberman boasts just a fraction of Warnock’s financial resources — the pastor reported about $2.8 million in his campaign account on June 30, while Lieberman had roughly $300,000.
And while Warnock is featured regularly on cable shows and national events — the pastor just helped officiate at John Lewis’ funeral — Lieberman spends his time in relative obscurity. He said he spends hours each day calling donors and introducing himself to activists. His calendar is only now starting to fill up with a handful of virtual gatherings, he said.
Lieberman’s standing in the polls has also attracted new scrutiny. James Woodall, the president of the state NAACP chapter, called on Lieberman to abandon his bid because of a 213-page novel called “Lucius” that he wrote in 2018 that contained “racist tropes” about slaves and society.
“I know there were good intentions in writing this book, but it doesn’t undo the real damage these kinds of narratives create,” Woodall said. “Get out of the race. We don’t need that kind of division or distraction in a time where our democracy is literally on the line.”
Lieberman has dismissed the criticism of his novel, saying the pushback is a “testament to the strength of my candidacy,” and said he’s not dropping out.
His supporters say he brings a needed perspective to the race. Dr. Zoya Arbiser, a pathologist, said she got to know Lieberman as he helped expand a learning disabilities program at what is now known as the Atlanta Jewish Academy.
“We saw Matt in action and got the sense that he was just a very good human being,” Arbiser said. “We never really voted as Democrats, but we’re willing to support him. He’s their best shot at making this a blue seat.”