Sen. Raphael Warnock Is Finally Going for the Jugular in Georgia Senate Battle
Jugular in Georgia Senate Battle: Raphael Warnock, a pastor who is also a politician, ran for the Senate in Georgia in 2020. He and his team lived by the unofficial slogan “Remain the Reverend.” The plan was for Warnock, who holds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit in Atlanta, to stay above personal attacks and messy partisan politics. In the runoff election of that year, when he beat Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), he was able to reach that goal.
Even though Warnock is stuck in yet another tense runoff, he is still very much the high-minded Reverend. But this time, because he is going up against someone very different from Loeffler, Warnock has made his sermon a bit more fiery.
Even though the Democrat’s social media posts and campaign ads still play up his political brand including his famous “Beagle” ad from 2020 Warnock has been focusing more and more on attacking the character and credibility of his opponent, Herschel Walker, in his final message before the runoff election on December 6.
Even though Walker is one of the most scandal-ridden major candidates in history, Warnock spent most of the 2022 campaign avoiding the news that Walker had allegedly paid for two women to have abortions, had several children he hadn’t talked about, and was also allegedly violent toward his ex-wife. Warnock mostly attacked Walker for his policies on issues like access to abortion and health care and for making his business and academic records look better than they were.
In the last few weeks of the general election, it seemed like Warnock stopped holding back. The senator’s more than a million Twitter followers heard him talk more and more about his opponent’s history of major scandals and false statements to show that he is “not fit for the job.”
Since Warnock and Walker started their four-week runoff campaign, this plan has only grown stronger. “Herschel Walker lies about basic facts about his life,” Warnock said in a tweet on Monday. He listed Walker’s false claims that he was a police officer, an FBI agent, and a graduate of the University of Georgia. “He’s not good enough to stand for Georgia.”
It was far from Warnock’s most sharp-elbowed move. Before Thanksgiving, Warnock rallied in Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville where Walker’s former high school football coach described all the reasons why his former star player was unfit to serve in the Senate.
“He has been a little more hard, as people say, with the tweets this time,” said Jeremy Halbert-Harris, who was a senior adviser to the Georgia Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign for the 2020 runoffs. Warnock’s goal, said Halbert-Harris, is to make the contrast between himself and Walker as stark as possible. “Especially in a race as close as this one, you can’t leave any crumbs on the table,” he said. “He is taking the approach of, leaving no stone unturned.”
“People like that he’s going after him harder in the runoff,” said Nabilah Islam, a Democratic state senator who was just elected. “It’s important for voters to know why we can’t pay for Herschel Walker to be in the U.S. Senate.”
Few people would argue against how smart that plan is, but the senator is walking a fine line. Warnock’s supporters say that because of his background and, now, his record on policy in the Senate, he is the only one who can offer this contrast to Walker. At the same time, it can be harder to “remain the Reverend” when a campaign battle is getting very personal and very nasty.
Warnock’s main goal right now is to keep being a senator from Georgia. Charles Bullock, who has taught politics at the University of Georgia for many years, said that was the easiest way to explain the strategy.
“He seemed like a nice guy two years ago,” Bullock said. “I think he would have stayed out of the fight and been the statesman if the polls had been good. Warnock probably would have liked it better if things had turned out that way. Because the way the competition is going is changing, he has to change his plan.”
The results of the general election in November showed that the plan was on the right track. Warnock was ahead of Walker by 1 percentage point. He was the only Democrat running for statewide office in Georgia who got more votes than their Republican opponent.
Walker got about 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp did when he easily beat Stacey Abrams to stay in office. Many observers think that Walker’s well-known personal problems were a clear reason why some Kemp voters chose to vote for Warnock or didn’t vote for Walker at all.
Since the beginning of his run for the Senate, Walker has had to deal with personal scandals and controversies. Warnock didn’t talk about them directly during most of the 2022 campaign because he didn’t have to. During the primary and general elections, both Democratic and Republican groups from the outside hammered Walker with TV ads about his past allegations of domestic violence.
In October, The Daily Beast reported that Walker, a strong opponent of abortion, had paid for a girlfriend to get an abortion. This became a major issue in the race. Warnock mostly didn’t care about the story. One Democrat told The Daily Beast at the time that there wasn’t much he could add to what Walker’s own son, Christian, was saying in public about how bad of a father and family man the Republican was.
But when polls showed that the race was getting close in the last month, Warnock became more aggressive. After their head-to-head debate on Oct. 14, in which the moderators gave Walker a pass on the abortion revelations and Warnock didn’t bring it up himself, his tweets about Walker’s character and honesty became more frequent.
Even though Warnock never mentioned specific Walker stories, they were so well known that voters probably knew what the senator meant when he tweeted, for example, that Walker’s “pattern of lies and disturbing behavior proves he is not ready to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.”
Two days before the election, Warnock stepped up his rhetoric by tweeting, “We’ve seen Herschel Walker double down on his lies despite all the evidence, and we’ve seen a pattern of lying and violence.” This hasn’t changed during the runoff campaign. Warnock wants the election to be a vote on “competence and character,” which he says applies to both himself and Walker. For people who have been watching the campaign, this was a natural change in strategy.
“He did it exactly on the timeline that makes sense,” said one Democratic aide. “He didn’t have to hammer the personal stuff earlier because it was coming out on its own accord.”
Walker and his fellow Republicans have their own message to send in the end. It says a lot of bad things about the Democratic senator, and it’s even worse now that Walker can’t say that voting against Warnock means voting for a Republican majority in the Senate. For example, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Sen. Mitch McConnell, has spent millions of dollars to spread rumors that Warnock’s church kicked people out of apartments it owns.
In 2020, Loeffler and Republicans used Warnock’s decades of sermons to portray him as a “radical liberal”—an attack line Loffler herself repeated so many times during their debate that it backfired. That material has largely vanished from the Republican playbook for 2022, but Republicans have maintained one attack line from 2020: amplifying critical comments about Warnock from his ex-wife in an attempt to cover for Walker’s own domestic scandals.
While Warnock’s ex-wife once called him a “great actor,” allegations that he ran over her foot with his car have yet to be proven. Meanwhile, a judge has sealed details regarding her claims that Warnock did not pay child support.
Walker’s own Twitter account has slammed Warnock, claiming he “only serves himself” and is not the decent man he portrays himself to be. Nonetheless, the Republican candidate has perplexed observers by emphasising the issue of transgender people in college sports in the runoff campaign, even airing a direct-to-camera ad featuring himself and a female athlete.
Warnock speaks broadly about the importance of character and integrity at campaign stops, but saves the barbs for Twitter. Much of his in-person pitch focuses on his support for proposals such as lowering the cost of insulin and emphasising his policy work with arch-conservative senators such as Ted Cruz.
During the four-week campaign, both sides are calculating how to make the voter math work in their favour on December 6. According to Democratic strategist Nina Smith, tight margins have influenced Warnock’s decision to escalate his attacks on Walker.
With both the 2020 Senate runoffs being decided by under 1 percentage point, a tight political landscape means bringing out any anti-Walker voters available, even if they aren’t otherwise comfortable voting for a Democrat.
“Over the course of the entire cycle, there was definitely commentary around his record, his lies, how he presented himself to Georgia voters,” Smith said of Walker. “I think the escalation is natural going into a runoff.”
Smith added that the Democrats have a “battle-tested” turnout operation focused on the runoff process, but that different voting rules across the state’s 159 counties may pose a bigger threat to the Warnock campaign. “The Warnock campaign will look for votes in every possible place.” Bullock, the UGA political scientist, contended that the attack ads could also be intended to discourage Kemp voters from voting for Walker, which would be a critical component of a Warnock victory.
If Warnock wins, his party will have an outright 51-seat Senate majority and, finally, a six-year term for itself after two brutal election cycles. Warnock’s supporters believe he will succeed in “remaining the Reverend,” regardless of how this unusual campaign has forced him to adapt. “Throughout this entire process, he has not changed how he presents himself,” said Georgia Democratic adviser Halbert-Harris. “He still preaches,” he quickly reminded.
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