Battle for Warnock’s seat at center of US Senate power struggle once again

Francesca Chambers and Nick Wooten
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington — A year after Georgia voters sent Baptist minister Raphael Warnock to Washington, the national spotlight is back on the lawmaker, whose reelection bid could determine whether Democrats maintain control of the U.S. Senate for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s first term.

Warnock is competing for a full six-year term after winning a special election last year. The fight will be among the most expensive in the 2022 midterm election cycle, with candidates, political parties, activist organizations and political action committees preparing to spend hefty sums on voter persuasion and turnout efforts.

Democrats say their side has the upper hand in the race against Republicans, in spite of a failed push to pass federal voting rights legislation that would have superseded Georgia’s new election law and the potential for depressed turnout from Democratic Party base voters, including young adults and African Americans.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and other Democratic members of Congress hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

“Voters are in a foul mood,” said Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist and former acting Democratic National Committee chairwoman. “The most important thing for Sen. Warnock to do is to show up every weekend, or whenever time permits, and to go beyond Atlanta, to go into those small communities around the state of Georgia and talk to the farmers, talk to the manufacturers, talk to the students and to run a non-traditional campaign.”

Warnock beat his Republican opponent, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, by fewer than 100,000 votes in a runoff election last January. Biden won the state by an even slimmer margin — roughly 11,000 ballots — and has seen his popularity decline sharply with voters across the country.

Republicans are engaged in an intra-party war in the state, which Democrats say is in stark contrast to the unified approach their candidates plan to take.

Warnock and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will run together as a ticket, they say, and emphasize outreach to rural and Black voters who helped Democrats win statewide in the 2020 presidential election and the ensuing Senate runoff contests.

They stressed that by working closely together, the two friends who have similar political convictions will be able to cover more ground than Republicans.

“Stacey Abrams and Raphael are Batman and Catwoman,” said Democratic strategist and civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers. “They are two of the more talented people in our party.”

A House divided

Incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is facing a primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who carries the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Kemp remains a focus of Trump after the governor refused to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results.

In this May 29, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump, left, and his daughter Ivanka Trump, right, watch as former football player Herschel Walker, center, throws a football on the South Lawn of the White House.

The rivalry in the GOP gubernatorial primary will likely bleed into the Senate contest. Trump has thrown his weight behind Republican candidate Herschel Walker, the 1980s University of Georgia football star who is the GOP front-runner, but has thus far avoided picking sides in the Republican battle for the governor’s office.

It’s unclear how corrosive the division within the Republican Party will be to its candidates’ efforts to beat Democrats in the general election.

“The divisions between the Trump wing and the rest of the Republican Party are deep and may be more profound in Georgia than in almost any other state in the country,” said Chris Grant, a political science professor at Mercer University in Macon.

Republicans in the state party are downplaying the tension, pointing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement of Walker and the party’s unified dislike of Abrams. She is a common political enemy who will motivate GOP voters to turn out in November, they say.

“It’s the first time in several years that you’ve got McConnell and Trump agreeing on something,” said Georgia Republican Party treasurer Joseph Brannan.

Republicans also say the Senate race dynamic may be different with Trump out of office. They are hopeful he will not suppress Republican turnout again by coming to the state to emphasize his stolen election claims.

The national party is seeking to weaponize Biden’s sagging support among independents and core Democratic Party constituencies and use it against Warnock in Georgia.

“People may like Warnock, but the reality is that he’s not representing where the people of Georgia are,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Chris Hartline. “He’s just an easy yes vote for Joe Biden and Democrat leadership in Washington, and one year in and with no signs of anything changing, we have an economy that’s still flagging, we have inflation that’s hurting working-class voters in Georgia, we have crime surging, particularly in Atlanta.”

In a Fabrizio, Lee & Associates poll for the Make America Great Again Committee that was released in November, Biden trailed Trump, 45% to 48% among Georgia voters in a hypothetical 2024 matchup.

Biden’s national approval rating stands at roughly 42% on average, and midterms are historically hard on the party of the sitting president. In an NBC News poll released last week, Biden’s support among Black voters nationally was at 64%, while independents gave him a 36% approval rating. His approval rating was 40% and 51% among young people and women, respectively.

Warnock’s work

Democrats inside and outside of Georgia said Warnock, who is one of only three Black senators, will largely be shielded from voter backlash against Biden and frustration among Black voters with the lack of legislative progress on policing, criminal justice and voting reforms.

President Joe Biden and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., enter Ebenezer Baptist Church, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Atlanta. Warnock is senior pastor at the church.

Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, an institution once led by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and he is the first African American senator from Georgia. Warnock invoked King’s legacy while leading an unsuccessful push for federal voting rights legislation this month.

“No one’s blaming Warnock for this not happening because they see him and hear him fighting to try and make this happen,” said Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the Georgia runoff election. “What Warnock has done in Georgia, quite frankly, the president has to do across the country.”

Warnock welcomed Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to his church during their visit to Atlanta this month to press for federal voting rights reforms. Abrams did not participate in the event, which her campaign said was due to a scheduling conflict. A spokesman for Abrams declined to comment for this article.

The senator’s campaign stressed that in his first year in office he fought to expand Medicaid and keep rural Georgia hospitals open. He also partnered with Republicans to pass the bipartisan infrastructure law that paves the way for the Interstate 14 corridor that will connect Georgia to neighboring states.

In a statement, Warnock’s campaign communications director Meredith Brasher said, “Reverend Warnock is fighting to improve the lives of all Georgians and secured relief for hardworking families, small businesses and farmers, worked relentlessly to save and grow jobs in Georgia industries like battery manufacturing, and is focused on lowering costs, including for health care and prescription drugs.”

Democrats will need every vote they can get in the state, and race is the nation’s most expensive for the 2022 cycle so far. In the final quarter 2021, Warnock raised $9.8 million, and Walker raised $5.4 million.

As of Sept. 30, former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler topped $2.5 million. Georgia’s agricultural commissioner Gary Black and Air Force veteran Kelvin King also topped $1 million in contributions. Fourth-quarter data for three men were not available. All three are Republican challengers.

Warnock vs. Walker

The margins between Walker and Warnock are narrow. In a November poll from Redfield & Wilton Strategies, Warnock led Walker, 48% to 42%.

While he carries Trump’s support, Walker is an untested candidate. He’ll have to introduce himself to general election voters who were too young to remember his football glory days, Grant said. Republican infighting could also result in Libertarians siphoning off GOP votes, a replay of the 2020 general election between Perdue and Jon Ossoff, Grant added.

Even with Warnock’s built-in advantages in the race, some Democrats and civil rights leaders worry Georgia’s revamped voting laws will make it too hard for many rural, younger and minority younger voters to successfully cast ballots and too easy for aggrieved candidates and their supporters to interfere with electoral outcomes.

“You can’t organize yourself out of that without legislation to push back against suppression, discriminatory laws,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

Georgia mainly changed when and how its residents can vote. The law put restrictions on the use of ballot drop boxes that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents of Georgia also have to request and return absentee ballots earlier, although early voting hours were extended in most counties across the state.

The Republican-backed law also disallows anyone except poll workers from serving food and beverages, including water, to voters waiting in line at polling places.

The new rules make it all the more important that Warnock and Abrams oversee a robust voter registration and education effort, said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who served as an adviser to Abrams in 2018 and worked on messaging and polling in the 2021 runoff election in Georgia.

She said that growth in the electorate, particularly among Black voters, between 2018 and 2020 was key to Democratic victories in Georgia last election cycle.

“That shows you that the electorate is there. The voters are there,” Finney said. “And so the job will be to continue to register voters and protect the freedom to vote in Georgia.”

County parties in the state’s larger cities are planning to send staff members, resources and information to surrounding rural counties, said Tonza Thomas, chair of Columbus, Georgia’s Democratic Party. Thomas, who worked on Abrams’ 2018 campaign in Columbus, said the 2022 effort has to be more aggressive than in years past because of Georgia’s new voting rules.

“We’ve got to beef up what we did because SB 202 is in place,” she said. “We’ve still got those contacts, and some of us have family members in those counties. All we’re doing is linking the chain.”