Warnock moves from pulpit to top rungs in crowded Senate race

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat running in Georgia's special election for the U.S. Senate, speaks to supporters during a gathering Saturday in Powder Springs. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Editor’s note: This profile of the Rev. Raphael Warnock is the third in a series of stories about major candidates running in November’s special election to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Other stories in the series focus on Republicans Doug Collins and Kelly Loeffler and Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver.

POWDER SPRINGS ― When the Rev. Raphael Warnock arrived at the Powder Springs Amphitheater for a political rally Saturday he was not happy with the reception he got.

So he employed a trick honed from his work in the Baptist Church.

“I can’t hear you,” he yelled, momentarily transforming the stage to a pulpit. “I’m a Baptist preacher. ... Hello everybody!!”

The crowd roared.

It is that ability to appeal to voters as a pastor of one of the most important churches in the nation while slowly transitioning into a politician that has positioned Warnock as a front-runner in a contentious 21-candidate race for the U.S. Senate.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has had to campaign mostly through Zoom because of the coronavirus. But he attended a rally Saturday in Powder Springs. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Before Warnock spoke, eight candidates for local and state offices hit the stage. But everyone was there to see Warnock, who is attempting to make history by climbing out of Savannah’s Kayton Homes projects to become Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and just the 11th African American to serve in the Senate since Hiram Revels was elected to represent Mississippi in 1870.

Warnock ― a 51-year-old who had never run for political office before but holds solid name recognition as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ― is trying to unseat conservative Republican Kelly Loeffler.

ExploreMore AJC profiles of Georgia's U.S. Senate candidates

A recent Quinnipiac University poll had him leading the field at 31%, and his campaign is reporting that he has raised over $12.8 million over the past three months. In previous filings, he’s outraised both Loeffler, who is self-financing her campaign, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, another formidable Republican in the race. Warnock is not accepting any corporate PAC money.

A recent Quinipiac University poll showed Raphael Warnock leading the field of 21 candidates running in the special election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kelly Loeffler, and he has raised nearly $13 million in campaign funds over the past three months. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In addition, prominent local and national Democrats are backing him while at the same time urging other members of the party ― namely Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver, who have no significant campaign funding ― to drop out in an improbable play to get Warnock over 50% of the vote in November. Warnock, though, has not asked any candidate to exit the contest.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock introduces U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, now the Democratic candidate for vice president, during a worship service in March at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Warnock holds endorsements from leading Democrats both at the state and national levels. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Warnock’s campaign has also benefited from the bitter Republican-on-Republican feud between Loeffler and Collins, which has distracted GOP attention away from attacking his record.

He did face criticism in April, but that was from Tarver, who called on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to rescind its endorsement of Warnock after news broke about a minor domestic incident between the pastor and his then-wife.

But as Warnock has risen in the polls, Republicans have begun mining his old sermons and speeches.

On Monday, the GOP began circulating video from 2013 of Warnock describing capital punishment as “part of a conservative backlash in the years immediately following the civil rights movement."

”In a real sense, it is the final failsafe of white supremacy, for the data clearly show that its use ensures that in the final analysis, the lives of white people are to be regarded as more valuable than the lives of Black people," Warnock said in the speech.

Warnock has long opposed the death penalty and was a leading advocate for Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011 in the slaying of a police officer despite evidence that supported his innocence.

In his messaging and on the campaign trail it is easy to see how the gospel according to Warnock is playing out. He has said several times that, now more than ever, the Senate needs a pastor.

“We are at an inflection point in American history," Warnock said. "There is a fundamental question about the character of our country and the soul of our nation. We are in a spiritual crisis.”

'Ability to see things differently’

As Loeffler and Collins have tried to outdo each other in courting Trump and other conservatives, Warnock has comfortably settled into his liberal platform focusing on expanding access to health care, protecting voting rights, fighting for worker rights and addressing criminal justice. As a pastor, he has spent his life at bedsides and in hospitals tending to the sick and dying.

In June, shortly after preaching at the funeral of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man killed by an Atlanta police officer, Warnock headed to South Georgia to welcome the release of his brother Keith, who in 1997 was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug-related offense.

The son of two pastors, Warnock is the 11th of a dozen kids and the first to go to college. In 2005, at age 35, he was tapped to lead Ebenezer. Shortly after arriving he led a “Freedom Caravan” of Hurricane Katrina evacuees back to New Orleans to vote in person.

It was then that state Sen. Nan Orrock met Warnock for the first time.

“I saw then a person very passionate about justice, voting rights and working to meet the needs of those who are in dire straits,” Orrock said. “Now, 15 years later, I am grateful that he is willing to plunge into this battle. He is a man of keen intellect, a strong work ethic and the ability to see things differently. That is needed in the U.S. Senate.”

The Rev Raphael Warnock is arrested in front of the governor's office at the Georgia Capitol during a rally in 2014. Since becoming the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock has led voter registration drives, advocated for the expansion of Medicaid, hosted a climate change summit with Al Gore, opposed capital punishment and pushed for an overhaul of criminal justice policy. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Since becoming Ebenezer’s pastor, Warnock has led voter registration drives, advocated for the expansion of Medicaid, hosted a climate change summit with Al Gore and pushed for an overhaul of criminal justice policy.

“It is about my passion for justice,” said Warnock, who marked his 15th anniversary at Ebenezer on Sunday. “I am not in love with politics, but I am in love with humanity. Politics is a tool to effect the kind of change that I want to see in the world."

Virus forces changes in pulpit, on campaign trail

Just six weeks into his campaign, the world stopped at the feet of the coronavirus, forcing Warnock to make his adjustment from the pulpit to the campaign virtually. Ebenezer has opened just twice since the pandemic ― for the funerals of Brooks and U.S. Rep. John Lewis ― so he tapes his sermons to be delivered on Sundays.

He can’t knock on doors, kiss babies or sit in living rooms. Instead, he does Zoom.

Rallies like the one in Powder Springs are carefully socially distanced, and everyone wears masks. Immediately after speaking Saturday, Warnock placed his mask back on his face while an aid squirted him with hand sanitizer.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the Rev. Raphael Warnock to make changes both as a pastor and as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Monica Brookings Wells and her husband, Jonathan, stood in the crowd and hung on every word out of Warnock’s mouth. They live in Powder Springs and are members of Ebenezer. This was their first time seeing their pastor in person in months.

“If you have ever gone to one of his sermons, you will see how focused he is,” Wells said. “And that translates on the campaign trail. He sounds like what he needs to sound like, and he is going to stay focused.”

Sunday marked 15 years since the Rev. Raphael Warnock became the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Warnock’s visit to Powder Springs was the second of three rallies in metro Atlanta that day. After his stump speech, he took questions. Then, dozens in masks lined up to take their photograph with Warnock.

Finally, at 4:45 p.m., he was done, leaving him 15 minutes to get to Riverdale for another rally.

“If the people in this state, whose children need student loans and who are in the Medicaid gap and who suffer through bouts of food insecurity across racial lines, will rise up and make their way to the polls, we will change this state in one election cycle,” Warnock said. “A vote is a kind of prayer, a prayer for the kind of world we want to live in.”

Georgia’s U.S. Senate special election

This profile of the Rev. Raphael Warnock is the third in a series of stories about major candidates running in November’s special election to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Other stories in the series focus on Republicans Doug Collins and Kelly Loeffler and Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver.

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