Sen. Raphael Warnock Is Finally Going for the Jugular in Georgia Senate Battle
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In his 2020 campaign for the Georgia Senate, pastor and politician Raphael Warnock and his team lived by an unofficial motto: "Remain the Reverend."
The idea was that Warnock, the pulpit holder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, gliding over the filth of personal attacks and chaotic partisan politics. He succeeded in achieving that goal by defeating Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in the runoff earlier this year.
Caught in yet another controversial runoff, Warnock is still brooding over his identity as a high-minded reverend. But this time Warnock has added a bit more fire and brimstone to his sermon as he faces an opponent very different from Loeffler.
While the Democrat's social media messaging and campaign ads still hype his political brand - even repeating his famous 2020 "Beagle" ad - Warnock has increasingly made attacks on his opponent Herschel Walker's character and credibility into one Key to his closing message made ahead of the December 6th runoff.
Herschel Walker recently stopped renting the Georgia home he claims as his home
Despite the University of Georgia football legend being one of the most scandal-plagued lead contenders in history, Warnock spent much of the 2022 campaign avoiding revelations that Walker allegedly paid two women to have abortions and several children which he had not spoken about and was also allegedly violent towards his ex-wife. Warnock attacked Walker largely for his political positions on issues such as access to abortion and health care, or for his embellishment of his business and academic records.
In the final weeks of the general election, Warnock appeared to stop drawing his punches. To his more than a million followers on Twitter, the senator increasingly referred to his opponent's records of serious controversy and misleading statements to argue that he was "not cut out for the job."
That strategy has only intensified since Warnock and Walker entered the four-week runoff. "Herschel Walker lies about the basic facts of his life," Warnock wrote in a Monday tweet, listing his opponent's false claims that he was a police officer, an FBI agent and a University of Georgia graduate student. "He's not fit to represent Georgia."
It was far from Warnock's sharpest elbow pull. Before Thanksgiving, Warnock gathered in Walker's hometown of Wrightsville — where Walker's former high school football coach detailed all of the reasons his former star player was unable to serve in the Senate.
"He's been a little harder on the tweets this time, as people say," said Jeremy Halbert-Harris, who was senior adviser to the Georgia Democratic Party's coordinated campaign for the 2020 runoff.
Warnock's goal, Halbert-Harris said, is to make the contrast between him and Walker as stark as possible. "Especially in such a close race you can't leave any crumbs on the table," he said. "He assumes that he will leave no stone unturned."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
"People appreciate that he hits him harder in the runoff," said Nabilah Islam, a newly elected Senator from the Democratic Republic. "It's important to educate voters why we can't afford to have Herschel Walker in the US Senate."
Few would dispute the wisdom of this strategy, despite the delicate balance involved for the senator. Warnock's supporters argue that his profile - and now his Senate political history - gives him unique authority to provide this contrast to Walker. At the same time, the task of "remaining the reverend" can become more difficult in the heat of a remarkably bitter and personal campaign.
For now, Warnock's immediate goal is to remain a Georgia Senator. Charles Bullock, a veteran politics professor at the University of Georgia, said this is the simplest explanation for the strategy.
"Two years ago he seemed like the nice guy," Bullock said. "If the polls had been good I think he would have stayed above the fray and been the statesman. Warnock would probably have preferred it to have gone that way. Due to the changing dynamics of the competition, he needs to change his strategy.”
The results of November's general election provided some early evidence that the strategy was right. Warnock led Walker by 1 percentage point, making him the only Georgia state Democratic candidate to win more votes than his Republican opponent.
Remarkably, Walker received 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in his smooth re-election victory over Stacey Abrams. A number of Kemp voters either supported Warnock or simply opposed voting for Walker, and many observers believe Walker's much-publicized personal problems were a clear reason for this.
Personal controversy and scandal have dogged Walker since the beginning of his Senate candidacy. Warnock didn't directly address them for much of the 2022 campaign because he didn't have to. Outside groups -- both Democrats and GOP -- pounded TV ads on Walker about his previous allegations of domestic abuse during the primary and general election.
In October, coverage by The Daily Beast revealing that Walker, an anti-abortion hardliner, had paid for a girlfriend to have an abortion became a central focus of the race. Warnock largely declined to engage with the story. As one Democrat put it to The Daily Beast at the time, he had little to add to what Walker's own son Christian said publicly about the Republican's failure as a father and as a family man.
But as the polls intensified in the final month of the race, Warnock became more aggressive. There was a marked surge in his tweets focusing on Walker's character and integrity after their live debate on Oct. 14, in which the moderators effectively gave Walker a pass on the abortion revelations and Warnock declined to take the issue himself.
Herschel Walker's campaign knows he's a liar and they don't care
While Warnock never mentioned specific Walker stories, they were so thoroughly in the public blood that voters likely knew what the senator meant by tweets, like one on Oct. 19 in which he said Walker's "patterns of lies and disturbing behavior shows he is not ready to represent Georgia in the US Senate.”
Two days before the election, Warnock stepped up the rhetoric, tweeting: "We've seen Herschel Walker double down on his lies despite all the evidence and we've seen that pattern of lies but also violence."
That focus has only continued in the runoff, as Warnock seeks to make the contest a referendum on what he calls "skill and character" - both his own and Walker's. For observers of the campaign, it was a natural progression in strategy.
"He did it in exactly the timeframe that makes sense," a Democratic adviser said. "He didn't have to pound the personal stuff sooner because it came out on its own."
Walker and his GOP allies have a closing message of their own. It's sharply negative for the Democratic senator -- and has only gotten worse since Walker can no longer argue that a vote against Warnock is a vote for a Republican majority in the Senate. For example, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super-PAC that works with Senator Mitch McConnell, has spent millions reinforcing claims that Warnock's church has evicted residents from an apartment building it owns.
Democratic Georgia Senate candidate U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks during a campaign event November 26, 2022 in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
In 2020, Loeffler and Republicans used Warnock's decades of sermons to portray him as a "radical liberal" -- a line of attack Loffler himself repeated so many times during their debate that it eventually backfired. That material has largely disappeared from the 2022 GOP playbook, but Republicans have continued on a 2020 line of attack: amplifying critical comments about Warnock from his ex-wife to cover Walker's own domestic scandals.
While Warnock's ex-wife once claimed he was a "great actor", claims that he ran over her foot with his car have not been substantiated. Details of her claims that Warnock has not paid child support, meanwhile, are sealed by a judge.
Walker's own Twitter account has harshly stalked Warnock, arguing that he is "only serving himself" and is not the decent man he presents himself as. However, the Republican hopeful has confused observers by making the issue of transgender collegiate sports a prominent focus in the runoff campaign and even cutting a direct mail featuring himself and a female athlete.
When speaking at campaign stops, Warnock speaks broadly about the importance of character and integrity, but saves the barbs for Twitter. Much of his personal presentation focuses on supporting proposals like cutting insulin costs and emphasizing his political work with arch-conservative senators like Ted Cruz.
In the four-week campaign, both sides will play out how to ensure the voter math is in their favor on December 6th. Tight margins play a part in how Warnock has escalated his attacks on Walker, according to Democratic strategist Nina Smith.
With both 2020 Senate runoffs decided by less than 1 percentage point, a tense political landscape means all available anti-Walker voters must be pulled out, even if they don't otherwise like voting for a Democrat.
"Throughout the cycle, there were definitely comments on his record, his lies, how he presented himself to Georgia voters," Smith said of Walker. "I think the escalation, of course, is to go into a runoff."
"Not All Pastors Do That": How Rev. Raphael Warnock Used His Pulpit to Fight AIDS
Smith added that Democrats have a "battle-hardened" turnout centered on the runoff process, but she added that different voting rules across the state's 159 counties could pose the greater threat to the Warnock campaign.
"The Warnock campaign will try to find voices in every corner it can find."
Bullock, the UGA's political scientist, argued that the attack ads could also be designed in such a way that instead of convincing Kemp voters, they simply deter them from showing up and voting for Walker - which would be a key ingredient in a Warnock win.
If Warnock prevails, he will have secured his party an absolute majority of 51 Senate seats - and eventually a six-year term for himself after two brutal election cycles in a row. Warnock's allies believe that no matter how much this unique campaign has forced him to conform, he will be able to "stay the Reverend."
"Throughout this process, he hasn't affected how he presents himself," said Halbert-Harris, Georgia's Democratic adviser. He quickly added a reminder, "He still preaches."
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American pastor and politician (born 1969)
American businesswoman and former United States Senator from Georgia
American football player and political candidate (born 1962)
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