Can a Southern Black Pastor Really Beat Kelly Loeffler and the Republican Party in Georgia?

Raphael Warnock gestures while speaking into a microphone.
Raphael Warnock speaks at a drive-in campaign event on Thursday in Columbus, Georgia. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It wasn’t until January that the Rev. Raphael Warnock formalized what he’d been doing from one of the nation’s most influential pulpits for the past 15 years.

As senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. rose to national prominence in the 1960s, Warnock has long advocated for progressive political policies, from criminal justice reform to voting rights protections to climate change action. In 2014, Warnock famously pressed then-Gov. Nathan Deal to expand Medicaid at Ebenezer’s annual service commemorating King, saying, “If you really want to believe in Dr. King, we have got to help poor people.”

Warnock finally decided to officially enter the political arena earlier this year, launching his first campaign for one of Georgia’s two Senate races this fall. For years, Georgia Democrats had been nudging Warnock to run for office, hoping the charismatic minister could help gin up enthusiasm in the traditionally red state. With Georgia’s growing and diversifying electorate, Democrats have been counting on someone to eventually help flip their political fortunes. Warnock could be that candidate.

Once considered a long shot, Warnock has been polling as the front-runner in a crowded race that includes Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp after the sitting senator resigned, and Rep. Doug Collins, both Republicans. Warnock’s campaign really took off in August, when WNBA players started wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts as a protest against Loeffler, a co-owner of the league’s Atlanta Dream franchise who publicly denounced the WNBA’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier this week, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed Warnock in the lead with 34 percent of likely voters. If one of the candidates fails to reach 50 percent, the top two will advance to a runoff in January. (Loeffler and Collins are basically tied, as are the candidates in the other senate race, Sen. David Perdue and Jon Ossoff, as are Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Georgia!)

The odds have historically been against candidates like Warnock despite his promising poll numbers. Since 1870, only one Black candidate from the South has been elected to the Senate: Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican, who was initially appointed to replace the retiring Jim DeMint in 2012. Scott won a special election to serve the final two years of DeMint’s term in 2014 and was reelected in 2016. This cycle, Warnock is one of several Black candidates running for Senate in the South.

On Wednesday, I reached Warnock by phone while he was traveling through south Georgia on his campaign bus. He told me about what finally convinced him to go from activist to politician, what he thought of this week’s Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, and why he thinks he has a shot with rural white voters. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joel Anderson: Take me back to the launch of your campaign on Jan. 30, because at the time you were the third Democratic candidate. You knew you’d be facing a Republican incumbent in a traditionally red state. What made you think you had a chance?

Raphael Warnock: I’m a first-time candidate, but this is not my first campaign. I’ve been campaigning for voting rights. I’ve helped to register 400,000 new voters in this state. I’ve been campaigning for health care and for the dignity of work. And so as I engaged the people of Georgia doing that work, it became clear to me that the people of Georgia are ready for change.

Georgia Democrats wanted you to run in 2014 too, and you sat that race out and instead were a surrogate for Michelle Nunn. So, what made you decide to run this time?

As I looked across the landscape, at a time when Donald Trump has created so much pain in our country, it became clear to me that I needed to step up in this way. And so I’m deeply honored to do it.

As someone who was John Lewis’ pastor, someone who chaired the New Georgia Project and has made voter rights a plank of your life’s work, what do you think when you see those videos of people waiting in line for hours to vote?

Well, the good news is that the lines are long, and the bad news is that the lines are long. So, we are witnessing a collision between voter enthusiasm and voter suppression. And our job in this moment is to help voters to see what’s at stake—that the enthusiasm will win the day over the suppression.

There’s no question that the country is changing, that the state of Georgia is changing. And that’s why the other side is engaged in voter suppression. They know that the momentum is with us. People who have confidence in their message don’t engage in voter suppression. And so we’re living through a moment in which the politicians have decided that it’s better for them to pick the voters than have the voters pick the politicians.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Michael Thurmond, who is the Democratic chief executive of DeKalb County said, “Beyond 285”—285 as in the highway that separates the more populated areas of the state from the more rural ones—“the water’s cold and deep—that’s just it for Democrats. Turn out the base, but you must be able to appeal to moderate and conservative white voters.” But you said, “We are clearly living in a different time. The old math simply does not apply.” So, what does that mean to you?

We have the kind of multiracial coalition necessary to win. And it extends across the length and breadth of the state. It connects young people with older people, Black voters in urban contexts like Atlanta and Savannah. Rural voters in disaffected counties in North Georgia who are all feeling the pain of poor public policy and a kind of criminal neglect in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We should have known years ago that we need all of our neighbors to have health care coverage. But now we’re facing a deadly airborne disease in which my neighbor coughs, and that has potential implications for me. My neighbor might be uncovered, but I’m unprotected. And so I need that person to have health care, and I need their children to have access to good quality schools, and I need them to be able to work and earn a livable wage and retire with dignity. So, as the nation is changing, the urgency of building a multiracial, multigenerational coalition of conscience becomes all the more urgent.

You mentioned the pandemic. You’re talking about a time where people are predicting a third wave of the coronavirus that could be as—or even more deadly than the first two, which already took a significant toll on Georgia. Are you worried?

I’m on a bus right now, leaving Fort Valley, headed to Albany, Georgia, with a stopover in Camilla, Georgia. And the people of Georgia, as I’m moving across this state are grateful. And, to my surprise, they seem surprised to see a U.S. Senate candidate in their town. I just left Fort Valley, and they said we’re not used to people running for Senate coming by here. And as I’m moving across the state, people are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our rural health care systems were already devastated. And COVID-19 in a town like Albany—where we’re headed for the second time in this campaign—they are stretched and woefully unprepared for what has hit us over the last few months. So we’ve got to expand Medicaid in this state.

In this election cycle, there’s a wave of Black candidates running for Senate. Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, Marquita Bradshaw in Tennessee, and you. Do you think your candidacies signal a shift in the political landscape in the South? Or is there any concern that you won’t be able to reach skeptical white moderate voters?

Rural white voters and urban Black voters in Georgia are suffering from essentially the same thing. A once-in-a-century pandemic that has stretched our health care systems and particularly has left front-line workers exposed and unprotected and uncovered. That pandemic has induced economic turndown, the likes of which we have never seen. And so people need protections, workers need relief, and all of the citizens of Georgia need to have a voice in their own demands.

You’ve got a lot of enthusiasm. You’re considered by a lot of folks to be the front-runner. But are you worried about generating that same sort of enthusiasm, if there’s a need for a runoff?

The voters of Georgia are fired up. They’re fired up because they understand what’s at stake. We say it all the time, that elections have consequences. That’s a gross understatement this year. … Elections are literally a matter of life and death. And so, I think people will stay engaged if we’re forced into a runoff. I think the fact that I’m sitting where I am right now speaks to the momentum that we have in this campaign.

I’m running against the wealthiest member of Congress and a career politician. And yet we are in a very strong position.

You got the endorsement from Barack Obama a month ago, from Joe Biden a couple of days ago. But there was a real correlation between the WNBA players wearing those “Vote Warnock” shirts and the boost in your fundraising and polling. So how much do you credit them for the rise in your campaign?

Well, there’s been a few inflection points in our campaign, and certainly that was an important one. And I’m deeply honored to have the support of the women of the WNBA. I think we’re kindred spirits. These are young women standing up, laying it all on the line, no matter the cost. And in this moment, that’s what we need. We can certainly use it in high elected office.

When I talked to them, I thought about the fact that I’ve been fighting against police brutality while affirming the service provided by our police officers for years. The first time I was arrested as an act of civil disobedience, I was protesting police brutality. I was a seminary student, and a young African immigrant name, Amadou Diallo—

Oh man, yeah.

… was shot at [by police] dozens of times. I and scores of New Yorkers barged into 1 Police Plaza. And it only occurred to me while I was talking to those young [WNBA] women in their 20s that that was 1999. And now, some 20 years later, I see a group of young adults who don’t even remember Amadou Diallo or Rodney King. They’re standing up in the wake of the George Floyd killing and saying, “We can do better than this.”

And so, the fact that Kelly Loeffler then would think the problem is their affirmation of Black lives rather than the fact that we’ve been fighting this battle for so long, just for the sake of human dignity and equal protection under the law—it’s one more example of the way in which she’s out of touch. And she’s out of touch. So she needs to be out of office.

Are you an Atlanta Dream fan?

[Laughs.] None of us knew one another before this came up. And I love basketball. I was a kid who grew up in the Kayton Homes housing project in Savannah, Georgia. I spent many afternoons after school on the basketball court. But it became obvious early on that I had better stay focused on my books. That I was not going to make it playing basketball. But I’m certainly a fan of their courage.

Last thing, and I’ve been told that you’ll be a little cagey about this, but I have to ask: How do you think the Senate Democrats handled the hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett?

The question really is how the Republicans handled it. And the answer is: They’ve been outrageous. It’s hard to think of a time when we have seen such a naked display of raw power disconnected from any sense of principles. To call it hypocrisy is an understatement.

Mitch McConnell said, in clear and unequivocal terms, that this should not happen in an election year. That’s what he said in 2016. Lindsey Graham, who my friend Jaime Harrison is running against over in South Carolina, said that you can use my words against me. Right. Well, I hope that the people of South Carolina will. If we can’t trust what you say on tape, on television, we certainly can’t trust what you’re doing behind closed doors.

So this kind of raw partisanship at the expense of ordinary people is something that we cannot afford. This is not just a political game, who is up and who is down. Health care will be addressed by the Supreme Court a week after the election. That’s what’s at stake. And it’s unfortunate that the politicians have made it about themselves, rather than the people they are supposed to represent.