Raphael Warnock showcases populist streak in battle for second term

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock visits a Sandy Springs BP station to call for a fuel tax holiday to stem rising gas prices.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock visits a Sandy Springs BP station to call for a fuel tax holiday to stem rising gas prices.

At a stop in Columbus, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock touted new legislation to boost mental health funding. A few hours later, the Democrat stood at a Sandy Springs gas station promising to blunt rising fuel prices with a temporary gas tax holiday.

Warnock likes to call himself the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrat, the prime target of Republicans racing to take back control of the chamber. His message on the campaign trail is aimed at the swing Georgia voters who can help him avoid that fate.

With Congress in recess and November approaching, Warnock has supported a spate of noncontroversial measures designed to show an independent streak.

Along with three other at-risk Senate Democratic incumbents, Warnock is pushing the Gas Prices Relief Act to appeal to nervous voters on edge about rising inflation, supply-chain issues and the economic uncertainty tied to the pandemic and conflict in Eastern Europe.

His mental health plan would establish federal grant programs to help schools hire mental health counselors and boost access to mental health services. And a third measure Warnock introduced this month targets “special corporate interests” by capping out-of-pocket costs of insulin for diabetics.

Facing a tough reelection battle, Democrats hope Warnock can separate himself from President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers with crowd-pleasing proposals that echo the message earlier this month from his debut TV ad: “I see you, I hear you, I am you.”

“Quite frankly, this is part of me trying to do my job. My job is to represent the people who sent me. They are feeling the pinch,” Warnock said Tuesday during his Sandy Springs stop. “And I know that a lot of folks are focused on politics. I’m focused on the people.”

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pitching his plan to suspend the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax until 2023 as an effort to pass savings directly to Americans amid rising inflation. Opponents call it pandering, saying if Warnock were worried about gas prices, he should have backed the Keystone XL pipeline.

Credit: Nathan Posner

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pitching his plan to suspend the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax until 2023 as an effort to pass savings directly to Americans amid rising inflation. Opponents call it pandering, saying if Warnock were worried about gas prices, he should have backed the Keystone XL pipeline.

Credit: Nathan Posner

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pitching his plan to suspend the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax until 2023 as an effort to pass savings directly to Americans amid rising inflation. Opponents call it pandering, saying if Warnock were worried about gas prices, he should have backed the Keystone XL pipeline.

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

His Republican political opponents say it’s little more than pandering.

“Warnock’s gas station stunt is a cheap distraction from his disastrous record of skyrocketing inflation, surging crime, empty store shelves and an ongoing crisis at our southern border,” said Stephen Lawson of 34N22, a super PAC that backs Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate front-runner.

‘Cheap distraction’

Warnock is trying to rebuild the coalition that helped him defeat GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler in January 2021 by engaging both liberals and middle-of-the-road voters as a potential matchup against Walker or another GOP rival looms.

This month alone, Warnock demanded that Biden launch a federal investigation into “apparent price gouging” by global shipping carriers. He’s promoted a partnership with Republican Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz over a proposed highway expansion.

And at a recent town hall in Decatur, Warnock sought to empathize with voters over the rising prices of groceries while touting green energy projects in conservative Dalton. He sidestepped thornier issues, such as a question about whether he supported Buckhead cityhood.

“He’s listening to people complaining about rising costs,” said Jason Carter, a close Warnock ally who was the Democratic Party’s 2014 nominee for governor.

“They sent him to do a job and he’s doing it,” Carter said. “He’s not an ideologue. He wants to do good for people, and to me, this is what a senator is supposed to do. His constituency is the entire state, and that’s who he is trying to serve.”

It’s a pitch designed for voters such as Amy Clark, a Powder Springs financial services worker who leans conservative but is up in the air this campaign season — and skeptical of Walker.

“Go Dawgs, but I don’t know enough about what he stands for to be able to say if I’ll vote for him,” she said of the Republican.

Warnock struck a populist tone at the stop at the BP in Sandy Springs, pitching his plan to suspend the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax until 2023 as an effort to pass savings directly to Americans.

“It’s important to emphasize while they are seeing record prices, oil and gas companies are seeing record profits,” he said. “So it’s really important that we hold these oil and gas companies accountable, and that’s something I’m determined to do.”

Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount said the high prices were a problem of Warnock’s own making, blaming him for votes against amendments to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which Biden nixed shortly after taking office.

“How do you know it’s an election year? Sen. Warnock is pretending to care about the high gas prices that he became directly responsible for when he voted to kill the Keystone pipeline,” Blount said. “It’s too little too late.”

Asked about the criticism, Warnock responded: “I haven’t heard their solutions. I’m offering solutions.”

‘Puppies and Christmas lights’

To be certain, Warnock will have to reenergize core Democratic voters as well by amplifying a record that includes a primary role in advocating for federal voting rights legislation, an embrace of child tax credits and a vow to back the first Black female nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But facing a possible November matchup against Walker, a former football standout with near-universal name recognition, keeping swing voters in his corner might be Warnock’s most pressing problem.

The tenuous coalition of independent voters, former Republicans in the suburbs and Black Georgians who fueled Democratic victories in the last election cycle is under duress as high inflation, legislative gridlock and economic uncertainties take a toll.

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An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock with a slight edge in a head-to-head matchup with Republican Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, left. The same poll showed Warnock and Herschel Walker in a tight race in a similar pairing.

Credit: AJC File

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock with a slight edge in a head-to-head matchup with Republican Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, left. The same poll showed Warnock and Herschel Walker in a tight race in a similar pairing.

Credit: AJC File

Combined ShapeCaption
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock with a slight edge in a head-to-head matchup with Republican Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, left. The same poll showed Warnock and Herschel Walker in a tight race in a similar pairing.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed Biden’s approval among independent voters had dropped double-digits since May. And Democrats are already facing a battle against history that holds the president’s party usually loses ground in midterm elections.

The same poll showed Warnock in better standing, with a 44% approval rating — and just 35% who disapprove. In a hypothetical November matchup, he was neck and neck against Walker and had a slight edge over Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

A closer look showed the Democrat held double-digit leads over both Republicans among moderates and independents, two blocs of Georgia voters that often overlap. It’s an advantage that both parties know can be fleeting.

“He’s getting close to an election and he’s seeing that a Walker candidacy is a lot closer than he ever thought it would be,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative pundit who brought up Warnock’s warm-and-fuzzy ads from the last election.

“He went hard left at the beginning, and now he wants his campaign to look like puppies and Christmas lights again,” she said. “And that’s meant as a compliment. Those were some of the best political commercials I’ve ever seen.”

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock appeared with Alvin the beagle during an ad from his first campaign. Conservative pundit Martha Zoller called the ads from that campaign "some of the best political commercials I’ve ever seen.”

Credit: file

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock appeared with Alvin the beagle during an ad from his first campaign. Conservative pundit Martha Zoller called the ads from that campaign "some of the best political commercials I’ve ever seen.”

Credit: file

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock appeared with Alvin the beagle during an ad from his first campaign. Conservative pundit Martha Zoller called the ads from that campaign "some of the best political commercials I’ve ever seen.”

Credit: file

Credit: file