Rev. Raphael Warnock’s allies warn of backlash in Georgia Senate runoff race over sermon attacks

Phillip M. Bailey

Christal Hayes
 
| USA TODAY

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If Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock is worried about the deluge of negative ads coming from Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler and her allies, he isn’t letting Georgia voters see him sweat.

In a 30-second video posted last month, the 51-year-old pastor was shown walking his Beagle down a tree-lined suburban street holding a bag of dog feces while telling supporters he knew the “smear ads” were coming.

Loeffler is trying to scare voters, he said, by “taking things I’ve said out of context from over 25 years of being a pastor.”

“But I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are,” Warnock said as he dropped the bag into the trash and looked at the pup to ask: “Don’t you?”

The viral video has generated 6 million views and is gaining attention in the Loeffler-Warnock race, one of two run-off elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 that will determine which party will control the Senate next year.

If Democrats win both runoffs, President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, will find it much easier to enact his agenda and secure confirmation for his nominees to his Cabinet and the federal bench. The Senate would be split 50-50 but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to cast tie-breaking votes.

A Republican victory in one or both races would mean Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will continue to wield a slim majority that could leave many of Biden’s initiatives dead on arrival.

Warnock told USA TODAY in an email on Tuesday that the campaign is critical for the country, but also that his faith is central to many of the core issues that came to define the election, including health care. He accused Loeffler of attacking his faith in what he said was a “classic” GOP strategy to polarize voters based on fear and bigotry.

“People who lack vision traffic in division. They cannot lead us so they will seek to divide us,” Warnock said. “And when I speak with Georgians on the campaign trail, they aren’t asking about the latest ad, they’re worried about their health care, the well-being of their family, and their ability to pay rent and put food on the table.”

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The Loeffler campaign is undeterred by speculation of a backlash, and indicated that Georgia voters and national observers should expect more ads on comments the senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta has made from the pulpit and elsewhere.

“We don’t find it troubling to highlight Rev. Warnock’s own words and record,” Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson said.

“No matter how hard Raphael Warnock or the media try to explain away his own words, Georgians can see and hear for themselves that he is the most radical, anti-police, anti-military, anti-Israel, anti-business candidate anywhere in the country,” Lawson said.

Warnock’s statements explained

Loeffler telegraphed early that Warnock’s past sermons were going to be a focal point when she called her opponent, “the most radical Democrat on the ballot.” She also listed many of the associations featured in GOP attacks ads.

When Vice President Mike Pence recently flew into Cherokee County – an area Trump won by 39% in November – to stump for Loeffler, he slammed Warnock as a candidate who had “demeaned” military service members.

Republicans and Loeffler zeroed in on remarks Warnock made in sermons over his years as a preacher, particularly comments he made from the pulpit in 2011 in which he paraphrased scripture to argue, “You cannot serve God and the military.”

The comments touched on Matthew 6:24, which says, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Loeffler demanded Warnock apologize to the military, calling his remarks “despicable, disgusting, and wrong.” Republicans called the remarks radical, anti-military and argued the Bible passage meant men cannot serve worldly pursuits and wealth while serving God and had nothing to do with serving the county or serving in the military.

Warnock, in statement to USA TODAY, defended his view of scripture and accentuated the differing views of white evangelicals and black churchgoers.

“Through my reading of scripture, I have come to see justice as a central theme of the gospel,” Warnock said. “Because at root is a question about human dignity. And for me, the acid test of the claims we made on Sunday is what we do for the most marginalized members of the human family Monday through weekend services.” 

He added that his beliefs don’t “stop at the church door” and cited his work to follow the path of Martin Luther King Jr., who led Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.

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“People often ask me, ‘what is it like to stand in Dr. King’s shoes?’ and I say all the time that I don’t know, because I’ve never tried. We all do better when we say that our job is not to walk in the shoes of those we follow, but to stand on their shoulders,” Warnock said, noting that King was assassinated while in Memphis for a sanitation worker strike demanding livable wages and safer conditions. “We’re still fighting for workers and their rights, and I’m proud to be part of that tradition.”

The attacks since Election Day have accused Warnock of welcoming the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1995 to a New York City church where he worked as a youth pastor, a claim that fact-checkers have debunked, saying there was no proof Warnock had anything to do with planning the event. 

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Republicans have also tried to anchor Warnock to the “Defund the Police” movement in several ads, though Warnock has voiced his opposition multiple times. The GOP has also accused him of running over his wife’s foot during an argument, which police found no evidence of, and hindering a child-abuse investigation at a church camp, a case that led to charges against Warnock after he asked that teen counselors have lawyers present when police questioned them. The charges were later dropped. 

Warnock has launched his own attacks that have focused on federal investigations targeting Loeffler and other senators over stock sales that took place following a closed-door briefing in January on the coronavirus. Fact-checkers similarly have thrown cold water on the Warnock campaign’s ads saying there was no proof Loeffler personally sold off her stocks and noting that the federal probe ended without any charges. 

While the heightened focus on Warnock’s faith could ultimately be a factor for voters, analysts said this is a similar playbook that helped Republicans win big on Election Day in congressional races across the country. 

“Republicans came out of the general election attacking Democrats on policing and socialism and a variety of issues and they saw that they were able to draw blood,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which has rated both Georgia Senate races as toss ups. “Given how Republicans made gains in the House and have been able to hold the Senate for now, it makes sense that they would stick to the same playbook.” 

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Kondik added that Republicans are campaigning similarly to how they would in any runoff race in a right-of-center state, which Georgia has been historically, though Biden’s presidential win there has left Democrats hopeful of a changing landscape. 

“Georgia might not be a right-of-center state anymore and the electorate that shows up to vote on Jan. 5 might not be the same electorate where these tactics have worked historically,” he said.  

Senate Republican campaign leaders met with the Loeffler campaign prior to the Nov. 3 election to prepare for a run-off scenario, according to officials.

Those GOP operatives cited Warnock’s previous comments as part of the reason they have focused heavily on him over Georgia’s other run-off race – featuring GOP incumbent David Perdue against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.

“Warnock has been more controversial thus far and if Ossoff wants to run closely with him then he’ll have to answer for all his comments too,” a GOP campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told USA TODAY.

But inevitably in the Deep South such attacks against a Black candidate running statewide are being viewed through not just through a prism of race but the lens of faith.

An attack on Black faith?

The GOP is hoping to undercut Warnock with Georgia voters by playing up his past sermons and his support from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a Black minister who was a lightning rod of controversy in 2008 as the former pastor of then-candidate Barack Obama.

But left-leaning organizers who are backing Warnock predicted the attacks will backfire.

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Rev. Chester Ellis, pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Savannah, said the attacks will awaken a number of Black voters who might otherwise have ignored the run-off.

“Rev. Warnock is a son of Savannah,” he said. “He grew up in Savannah and grew up in a house of faith. So, therefore, an attack on him is an attack on all of our faith.”

Located along the Atlantic coast, Savannah favored Biden by about 19% in the election – five points higher than Democrat Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016.

Along with metro Atlanta, which also went heavily for Biden, it is credited with helping turn the Peach State blue and will have to have heavy margins for Democrats to have a chance in the run-off races.

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Ellis said his church is working to educate voters about the full context of Warnock’s previous sermons. He predicted the attack ads will backfire on Republicans more than energize their base.

“It’s going to have a great backlash upon (Loeffler),” he said.

Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock is a pastor, is historic not just as the spiritual home of Dr. King, but also as a transformational part of the slain civil rights leader’s biography during which he shifted to a more radical and international worldview.

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In January 1966, King first voiced opposition to the Vietnam War from the Ebenezer pulpit by casting U.S. military escalation in the region as a violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords that promised self-determination.

“Anytime one of the core pillars of Black struggle in this country comes under attack, it is felt as a real threat by Black people,” said Al Herring, executive director of Faith in Action, a national network of progressive-minded clergy.

Herring said while Black voters have a wide variety of religious traditions, the Christian church has typically been viewed as an important institution beyond just a house of worship. He said African American pastors have for decades espoused a more radical political position from their pulpits when compared to white evangelicals, who he said often try to speak singularly for American faith leaders.

“There is a long tradition in Black Christian theology to position the church as an advocate for Black liberation and ultimately a better country,” Herring said.

Faith in Action is among the group pitching in with grassroots resources toward the run-off that include working with Georgia clergy to record videos; organizing 50 poll chaplains; and getting 200 people a night for phone banking through the first two weeks of December.

Herring said there are concerns among Black voters that there is a misunderstanding and lack of respect for how faith traditions differ in African American communities. He noted that King was scorned by the political mainstream at the time for speaking out against the Vietnam War and poverty as legal racial segregation began to dissipate, and that the Black church has always pushed the country in a different direction than white evangelicals have.

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“The Black church believes that it has to continually involve itself with the Black liberation struggle, that it can’t serve Black people without having that commitment at the center,” Herring said. “Now that’s a very different way of understanding Christianity and it’s certainly very different than what we’re told to believe is the mainstream of religious thought in this country.”

Democratic campaign officials have not leaped directly into the religious overtones of the contest as much as others, but they are helping to counter the GOP narrative by highlighting Warnock’s upbringing as a Savannah native who grew up in the Kayton Homes projects.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it plans to launch a multi-million dollar field effort in Georgia, including on the ground organizers, direct mail and digital mobilization. The group is also making a $6 million reservation for TV spots for both run-off elections to be split between Warnock and Ossoff.

Warnock said he wants to lean into the debate about the country needing a “shared belief in the dignity of all people” that must be at the center of spiritual and secular service.