How Raphael Warnock fused Old and New South to win GeorgiaJanuary 6, 2021
Raphael Warnock’s victory Tuesday night is historic, heralding a litany of firsts. In a Senate that remains almost solely the province of white men, he'll be the first Black Democrat from Georgia, the first Black Democrat from the South, the first Black pastor and only the second Black senator ever elected from a state below the Mason-Dixon line since Reconstruction.
Warnock’s win is, ultimately, a tale of two Souths: the racial apartheid of the Jim Crow era South, post Reconstruction, where until just 55 years ago, the Black vote was poll taxed out of existence when it wasn’t crushed entirely, limited to a scant few. But out of that oppression, Black political power grew, despite grandfather clauses, property tests, secret ballots and impossible literacy exams. And that political power was firmly rooted in the Black church from whence Warnock sprang — specifically, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the storied congregation where Martin Luther King, Jr. was raised.
And Warnock’s victory, too, is a tale of the New South, where demographics are determining destiny, where there are more New Yorkers moving to greater Atlanta than from anywhere else, where Hollywood has set up shop, where wealthy Republican suburbs flipped blue and where the immigrant population jumped 84 percent in the past decade.
Warnock, 51, who grew up in Savannah public housing, post civil rights, in the early days of hip-hop, straddles both Souths. As a pastor of a Black church that is literally a national historic site, he’s a familiar figure among the leagues of Black Georgians in a state still deeply rooted in religion. People know him. Even if they don’t know him. So his opponent Kelly Loeffler’s attempts to define him as some kind of socialist agitator just didn’t work.
“The voice and the power of Georgia voters is what ultimately carried the day,” said Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP. “We don't necessarily identify as Democratic or Republican — we're just Georgians who are trying to do the right thing, trying to build community to ensure that everybody is able to survive.”
In Atlanta, the city Warnock now calls home, the path to politics is paved by the church. King learned activism from his father, Martin, Sr., who, as pastor of Ebenezer, led a voter registration drive in the 1930s with the local NAACP. Maynard Jackson, Jr., the city’s first Black mayor, was the son of an activist preacher. Former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the first Black representative from Georgia since Jefferson Long’s election a century earlier, got his start as a minister. So did the late Rep. John Lewis.
In a live-streamed address early Wednesday morning, Warnock seemed acutely aware of the weight of history. He spoke about his role as pastor of Ebenezer — and quoted King.
Georgians, he said, are “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. It’s dark right now, but morning comes ... let us rise up, greet the morning and meet the challenges of this moment.”
When King was alive, he led a movement that, despite revisionist history painting him as a neutered saint, was considered deeply, radically dangerous at the time. On the campaign trail, Warnock was also painted as a dangerous radical and was the most attacked candidate of the four running for Senate. Loeffler denounced Warnock as a menacing militant — even darkening his skin in TV and Facebook ads. She tied his sermons to Marxism and socialism and said his church was a hotbed for hosting “terrorists.”
Warnock’s win also negates the longstanding, quietly kept idea that Black candidates don’t stand a chance running for the Senate in the South. Over the years, African American candidates made some headway in Congress, but they’ve still struggled to get the support from the national party that white candidates often do. This year, Black candidates lost a slew of House races largely due to lack of party investment, Democratic strategists have said.
And even when they do raise money, they often lose anyway. Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy out-raised his Republican opponent by more than $10 million — and still lost. In South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison shattered fundraising records, raising $57 million, and still failed to unseat Lindsey Graham.
For Black politicians with ambitions, the Senate has proved elusive.
Just seven African Americans have ever been elected to the Senate. Warnock will be the eighth. The first two, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, were elected by the Mississippi State legislature in the wake of the Civil War. Nearly 100 years separated the tenure of Bruce, a Republican from Mississippi, from that of Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts. Today, only two serve — and only one, Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina — hails from the South. Only two Black women have ever been called senator: Kamala Harris and Carol Moseley Braun.
“I come before you as a man who knows that the improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here,” Warnock said in his victory speech. “May my story be an inspiration to some young person who is trying to grasp and grab hold of the American dream.”
And though it was the New South that propelled Warnock into office, he preaches — and campaigns — from the old school, prophetic tradition, which criticizes America’s greatest societal ills. On the campaign trail, it was hard to separate the preacher from the politician. His stump speeches mirrored his sermons, interspersing calls for Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform with allusions to scripture.
Like Barack Obama, Warnock downplayed race on the campaign trail, running on a platform that appealed to a wide swath of the electorate. In addition to Black voters, Asian Americans and Latinos supported him and Jon Ossoff in droves during both the November and January elections. And he made a concerted effort to target rural and first-time voters, having already engaged the groups extensively as chair of the New Georgia Project, a position he held from 2017 until 2020.
But even as a Black man running in the New South, the Old South was ever present, forcing him to toe a thin line between appealing to new voters and not alienating long-held support. Warnock tried to deflect Republican attacks on his religious background with policy responses or wholesome TV ads featuring puppies — a move his campaign said was meant to counter the narrative that he was a raging radical.
Warnock won the race with overwhelming support from Black voters, who account for one-third of the state’s electorate and a plurality of his final votes — a remarkable feat in the face of Georgia’s runoff model, which was designed to prevent this very scenario.
Attacking the Black church in the Bible Belt South “backfired on them,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on MSNBC Tuesday night. “And blew up in Kelly Loeffler’s face.”
Republicans aimed to make Warnock’s faith his Achilles’ heel. In the end, it proved to be his strength.