Warnock Stands Out in Senate as Election Fight Looms at Home (1)

  • Georgia Democrat won 2021 runoff, running again
  • High-profile role unusual for freshmen in chamber

(Adds information on Senate races in 15th paragraph. Previous update corrected month of Warnock speech.)

The passionate closing argument for voting rights legislation Raphael Warnock delivered on the Senate floor this month was only the latest high-profile moment for a lawmaker who skipped the usual first year spent under the radar.

The Georgia Democrat’s high visibility in the Senate and aggressive fundraising—he said he’d report Monday pulling in nearly $10 million in the last three months of 2021—are part of Democrats’ strategy to position him for re-election less than two years after his special-election win helped give the party control of the chamber.

Warnock, as the senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Atlanta church, which President Joe Biden visited last month in his voting rights push, brings a unique background and gravitas to arguments for some of the party’s top priorities. And giving the junior senator a megaphone could also help him return for the next Congress and preserve the Democratic majority.

Georgia State University political scientist Amy Steigerwalt said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who’s provided center-stage opportunities for the Georgia Democrat more than any other freshman, “knows that he needs to shore up those candidates who are going to be facing tough re-election campaigns.”

Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) speaks at the Capitol in November as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) looks on.

Warnock’s seeking a full six-year term in a swing state and defending one of the party’s most vulnerable seats as it clings to control in the 50-50 Senate. He unseated appointed Republican Kelly Loeffler in a January runoff by a 51%-49% margin.

Now he could be set for a general-election matchup with Georgia football legend Herschel Walker. Two polls released last week by Quinnipiac and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed how competitive the hypothetical contest is, with Walker leading by 1 and 3 percentage points, respectively. Walker must first win the May 24 Republican primary.

But after running the last time while a polarizing Republican president was in office, Warnock will now have to overperform a Democrat. President Joe Biden’s national approval rating as of Jan. 31 stood at 42% in the RealClearPolitics average. He was in the mid-30s in both recent Georgia polls.

Republican consultant Brian Walsh said Warnock must walk a “careful line” in his push to turn out traditional Democrats without turning off suburban voters who include Republicans disillusioned by former President Donald Trump. He added that Republicans mismanaged the state’s two Senate runoffs last year and likely would’ve won if they’d focused on the ramifications a Schumer-led Senate.

“But it’s really less about Schumer now than where President Biden is in the polls,” Walsh said.

Schumer’s office declined to comment on the race.

Warnock expressed optimism about his prospects in a brief interview about the race on the one-year mark of his Senate tenure. He dismissed concerns that Georgia’s newly restrictive state election laws and Schumer’s failure to deliver on voting rights legislation (H.R. 5746) will depress turnout this fall.

He said while the voting rights package failed in the Senate, the floor debate allowed Georgia voters who elected him last year to “hear what’s at stake.”

His first year as a senator stands in sharp contrast to his own beginnings as a clergyman and activist, including coming to Capitol Hill years earlier to promote the Affordable Care Act.

“I literally got arrested fighting for Medicaid expansion,” Warnock said. “And now my office is down the hall from the Rotunda where I got arrested.”

All Eyes on Georgia

Democrats are also defending competitive seats in Nevada, New Hampshire, and Arizona, where, like Warnock, Sen. Mark Kelly is running again after winning a special election. Republicans’ most vulnerable seats are in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Georgia race promises to be one of the most expensive on the map, as both party committees and aligned super PACs flood the Atlanta and smaller media markets with TV ads in an effort to sway voters and potentially swing the majority.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview that legislative wins such as the American Rescue Package (Public Law 117-2), which provided pandemic-related relief, and the bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) give Warnock more than enough to run on. He also said Stacey Abrams’ decision to run for governor again could boost turnout.

Peters said the GOP primary pitting Walker against Agriculture Secretary Gary Black and others is helpful, particularly as Walker has been dogged by personal issues from his past.

“I think that disarray will continue through the months ahead, and whoever emerges out of the Republican primaries will not be in a strong position to take him on,” Peters said.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said both Warnock’s support of Biden’s “disastrous” agenda and close ties to Schumer are vulnerabilities the GOP will exploit.

“Warnock doesn’t represent Georgia,” Scott said in an interview, summing up the GOP’s message. “Georgia is not a far left state. He 100% votes with Chuck Schumer. And so he does not represent the state.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com