A couple dozen supporters and volunteers lined the sidewalks outside the Cobb County Election Department headquarters in Marietta late last week as a bus bearing the likeness of the Rev. Raphael Warnock pulled in for a campaign stop.
The man aiming to be one of the next United States senators from Georgia stepped out to greet them and was met with prolonged cheers, hoots and hollers.
“I’ve got a preacher’s voice, but y’all have got to let me talk,” Warnock said with a smile before launching into a brief speech thanking his supporters.
Powder Springs mother and daughter Laurie and Hannah Vespers were among the cheering fans, each holding a Women for Warnock sign and wearing matching Warnock hats and face masks.
The two have been making phone calls and writing postcards to potential voters for Warnock.
“I love the way he speaks, you know?” Hannah Vespers said. “He is a reverend, he’s a preacher, he knows how to really talk to the people, but it’s also the platform, and especially right now, it’s about flipping the Senate blue.”
The high-stakes races between Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Jon Ossoff and Sen. David Perdue have taken the 2020 election into overtime and brought the eyes of the nation to Georgia.
Warnock, who holds degrees from Morehouse College and Union Theological Seminary, has been senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005, when, at 35, he became the youngest person to hold that title. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., father of the civil rights icon, also served as senior pastor, and King Jr. preached there as his father’s co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.
Warnock grew up in Savannah’s Kayton Homes housing projects, the 11th of 12 children and the first in his family to attend college.
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Occupation: Senior pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology from Morehouse College. PhD and master’s of philosophy from Union Theological Seminary.
Background: First bid for public office. Former chair of New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization focused on voter registration.
“There is a long tradition of pastors serving in the Congress. The ones that come immediately to mind for me are on the House side,” Warnock said after his Marietta campaign stop. “There have been few African Americans senators, period.”
“I think that the Senate certainly doesn’t suffer from overwhelming diversity on a whole range of fronts, and the power of our system as a representative democracy rests in the diversity of that representation. And so I think we need preachers, teachers and social workers. I think we need all kinds of folks to serve in the most consequential deliberative body on the planet.”
In the years since he came to Ebenezer, his ministry has been heavily involved in voting rights, criminal justice and education.
Warnock’s theology has also opened him up for criticism, and Loeffler’s campaign has years of material to sort through.
“I’m sure one of the first things they did was hire people in opposition research to go through his sermons and pick out bits and pieces which can be turned against him,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “And in that sense, he’s having the experience of a politician having spent a career in the legislature, they do the same kind of thing except they pore through the record of speeches he made on the floor or votes he made.”
Loeffler campaign ads have hit Warnock sermons for criticizing Israel and the American criminal justice system as well as for supporting Black liberation theologians like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who drew attention during the first Obama campaign for a sermon in which he said “God damn America.”
On Friday, the Loeffler campaign shared a 2014 Facebook post featuring a flyer advertising Wright as a guest preacher at Ebenezer Baptist.
Loeffler’s attacks seek to undermine Warnock’s authority as an inheritor of King’s pulpit, said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University.
“She’s used sermons, both Jeremiah Wright’s and Raphael Warnock’s, sort of as a way to try to undermine the idea that Warnock’s Christianity is recognizable to voters,” Gillespie said. “The problem with it is the racial undertones, because she’s implying that Black people can’t critique America, or they can’t forcefully critique America.”
Loeffler often attacks Warnock as not sufficiently supporting the police, repeatedly quoting a 2015 sermon in which, referencing the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., he said police officers can sometimes have the mentality of a gangster or a thug.
Ads from groups supporting Loeffler try to connect Warnock with the defund the police movement, which seeks to reallocate funds for police departments to other public services that help with underlying problems like mental illness.
Warnock has called for reforming the bail system and ending mass incarceration and private prisons, but not for defunding the police. The Senate is not responsible for approving police department budgets, which is typically a local government responsibility.
Loeffler has also tried to make hay of a 2002 incident in which Warnock was arrested at a church camp at a Maryland church where Warnock was the pastor.
According to a police report, Warnock and another pastor were charged with interfering in a criminal investigation by directing campers not to talk to police investigating claims of abuse. Neither Warnock or the other pastor were suspected of abuse. Warnock has said since he was insisting a lawyer be present before the campers talk to police.
A judge later dropped the charges. A prosecutor told the Baltimore Sun at the time that the arrest came as the result of a “miscommunication” and the pastors were “very helpful with the continued investigation.”
Hitting Warnock for his sermons could turn off Black voters, Gillespie said.
“Even if they actually don’t agree with his theology, it’s not unfamiliar, and so the attacks just look like they’re highly, highly racial, and for many African American voters, that’s unacceptable,” she said.