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The preacher who might finally turn Georgia blue

By

Maya King

Warnock, the 51-year-old senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has adopted a get-out-the-vote strategy focused on ginning up enthusiasm among first-time voters and liberal diehards. It’s similar to what Stacey Abrams attempted in her failed 2018 gubernatorial bid. But with anti-Trump sentiment running high and control of the Senate possibly at stake, Democrats here think this time will be different.

Drawing on his past work as chairman of the New Georgia Project — an organization founded by Abrams — Warnock is aiming to turn out young and minority voters at record levels. He’s campaigning heavily in densely populated metro Atlanta while paying special attention to rural outposts like Cuthbert, a town of 4,000 near the Alabama border where he met DJ Ray J.

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About 800,000 new voters have registered since 2018, nearly three times the number Abrams registered during her campaign. Young voters and people of color form the majority of those newly registered. Moreover, Trump is on the ropes in Georgia, polling evenly with Joe Biden within the margin of error — a sign that onetime supporters of the president are defecting to Democrats.

There is one huge hurdle likely in store for Warnock. Unlike Abrams, who lost narrowly in the first round of voting, he is almost certainly heading to a runoff against appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler or Rep. Doug Collins. If that happens, Warnock will have to figure out how to maintain momentum for an early-January runoff election without Donald Trump and Joe Biden to drive voters to the polls.

This entire decade, Georgia has tempted and teased Democrats as a red state just beyond their grasp. But Warnock and other Democrats believe this will be the year that the party finally breaks through, from Biden at the top of the ticket to Warnock and Democrat Jon Ossoff in his bid to oust Sen. David Perdue in a second Senate contest in the state.

“We’ve got a larger pool of voters who’ve never voted before,” Warnock said in an interview. “I’m a pastor so I’m reaching out to everybody … I think there are a lot of people hurting — white and Black, urban and rural. And so we’ve been moving across the state intentionally trying to talk to all of those voters.”

At the same time, he said, “There’s no question that Georgia is a place that unfortunately is very good at voter suppression.”

Warnock’s role at Ebenezer — once led by Martin Luther King Jr. — gives him credibility with Georgia’s powerful Black faith community to address social issues in an historical context. One of his first acts as senator, he said, would be to push for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for his late parishioner. The bill would reinstate the terms of the 1965 bill that allow more federal oversight of states’ elections administration.

Following the 2018 gubernatorial election, Warnock said the electoral map showed “opportunities” for Democrats: an influx of young people of color to the state and longtime residents who were politically inactive. His campaign is aggressively courting both groups.

“We’ve been pushing back against [voter suppression] through voter registration,” Warnock explained. “We’ve got 800,000 new voters that weren’t available to us in 2018.”

Warnock’s once long-shot bid for Senate found its footing over the summer, when the spread of Covid-19 and protests against systemic racism introduced more Georgia voters to his platform centering on health care and civil rights. WNBA players endorsed him in August by wearing t-shirts that said “Vote Warnock” after Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, banned them from wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts on the court.

Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, is running on a far-right, pro-Trump platform in an effort to appeal to the base of voters Georgia Republicans believe is large enough to keep the state red. Earlier this month she was endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congressional candidate whose embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theory and bigoted comments against religious and racial groups forced top House Republicans to distance themselves from her.

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A Tuesday Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that a plurality of voters in the state–34 percent–support Warnock. Though he’ll need more than 50 percent to win outright.

Adding to Democrats’ belief that Warnock will prevail even in a near-certain runoff election is his support among young Black men, a base Democrats are aiming to consolidate. He’s been homing in on Georgia’s rural counties, which Abrams targeted in 2018. Those regions, he said, need a leader who can fix the inequities in the state’s criminal justice system.

“Rural Georgia [has] been devastated by our refusal to stand up for these communities,” he said.

Republicans, however, have dubbed the minister too radical to appeal to a large enough coalition of Georgia voters.

Jesse Hunt, communications director for the National Republican Senate Committee, said Warnock’s talking points on race and criminal justice “will prove problematic with a wide swath of voters in Georgia” and “serve as an anchor on whatever his strategy may be to win this race.”

Warnock has leaned on his faith and his community to propel his campaign. He’s a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which often acts as a brother fraternity to Alpha Kappa Alpha, of which Sen. Kamala Harris is a member. Warnock’s fraternity brothers have a presence at all of his events, not just as supporters but volunteers. And Warnock is quick to recognize his fraternity brothers at campaign rallies. Their involvement has added to optimism among Democrats that they are closing the gap in political involvement between Black men and women.

“For every Black man who votes, 10 Black women are voting,” said state Rep. Derrick Jackson, who attended a Saturday event in Fayettesville, decked out in his Alpha Phi Alpha paraphernalia. He said he sits on three task forces geared towards encouraging civic participation among this group. “Black men need to know that you may not fall in love with the candidate but get someone who’s closer in line with your interests.”

In addition to building strong relationships among new voters, Warnock has sought to appeal to communities of faith. He peppers his stump speeches on topics like Medicaid and voter protections with allusions to biblical parables.

Warnock has brought his oratorical chops to the campaign stump, speaking with the cadence of a pastor preaching to a crowd of believers. His team has taken extra steps to comply with public health standards while on the campaign trail, a struggle when supporters crowded around him to take selfies. At one event held on the front lawn of a Black church in McDonough, Ga., Warnock had to sneak out the sanctuary’s back door to make it to another rally on time.

“In a state like Georgia, for a minister to be running like this, I think it shows that he’s being seen in a much broader context than just the idea that he’s a Baptist preacher,” said Derrick Harkins, the Democratic National Committee’s National Director of Interfaith Outreach. “I think he’s able to make people see him in the context of really being substantive in the issues, and capable in the context of leadership.”

Warnock has been able to draw diverse crowds to his events even in the midst of the pandemic. Most of the people at a joint rally he held with Ossoff were Asian and Latino.

“I think people have seen the light after 2016 of what happens when you don’t participate,” said Antonio Molina, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party’s Latino caucus. “And they have further seen what happens in 2018 when we start participating. Our numbers are only increasing.”

Only six African Americans have been elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. And Democratic optimism about a Biden win — and a pair of young, Democratic senators representing Georgia, one of them Black — is palpable here.

“Young voters, particularly young Black voters, could determine the makeup of the United States Senate,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. And that, Ufot said, “could have far reaching implications for what’s happening with the Supreme Court, what’s happening with our appellate court, and on and on and on.

“It just feels like a big deal.”

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