‘There’s Never Been Anybody Like Him in the United States Senate’
DALTON, Ga. — In the middle of a community center gym in the northwest corner of this state that is the epicenter of American politics stood the Reverend Senator Raphael Warnock. Flanked by red, white and blue balloons, the Democrat campaigning here in staunchly Republican terrain looked out at a small but supportive crowd of Black and white faces. Wearing wire-rim glasses and a trim navy suit, his bald head not quite as shiny as his gleaming brown shoes, the preacher politician made his case for re-election with a sermon on the transcendent power of pavement.
“Infrastructure is spiritual,” he said.
“I believe in this so much that something really unusual happened … something that I didn’t see coming,” he said. “The Warnock-Cruz amendment.”
The people in the bleachers seemed confused. But he had their attention.
“Talkin’ about — yeah — Ted Cruz.”
Now they groaned.
“I will confess,” he continued, “most days I’m sitting there, and he’s talking about what he does, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Now, I know why I get up in the morning …’”
Now they laughed.
“But,” said Warnock, getting to the moral of this message slipped into a stump speech, “we were passing the infrastructure bill” — the $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — “and it turns out there was something he wanted to do, and I also wanted to do …”
Now audible was a murmur of recognition. “Senator Cruz stood up to make his argument about why he thought we should do this, and then came my turn,” Warnock said, “and then I heard myself say words that I did not imagine hearing myself ever say. I said, ‘I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.’ They couldn’t believe it — I think 30 or 40 of my colleagues probably didn’t know what was in the amendment, but they said, ‘If he’s for it, and he’s for it, we better pass this thing.’ It passed unanimously.” And to this the still rapt crowd responded with raucous applause.
“My folks were asking, ‘Why would you work with him?’ Very simple. Senator Cruz wanted to build out this road in Texas — called I-14. Guess what? The same road that runs through Texas” — he paused a beat before the reveal — “runs through Georgia. Connects some of our military installations, and critical parts of this state that could use the development,” Warnock said. “It goes through communities that are largely red and communities that are blue. It goes past,” he crescendoed, “people who worship at churches, and temples and mosques — all have to get on the same road! Folks who are going to work, and the folks those folks work for — all have to get on the same road! In other words, if we build out the road, everybody can get to where they need to go! There is a road that runs through our humanity …”
And now the people in the bleachers were congregants as much as constituents, saying yessir, saying mm-hmm, talking back to Warnock the way a Black Baptist pastor wants, giving him the political equivalents of amens and uh-huhs. I’ve watched over the years countless candidates’ set-piece speeches — never, though, one that deliberately elevated a pedestrian piece of potential political pork into a nearly holy totem of American democracy. In a recent week of campaign events, official events and church events, it wasn’t the only time I saw him do this, and it always conjured something Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey told me earlier this summer when he called to talk about Warnock: “There’s never been anybody like him in the United States Senate.”
Neither has there ever been a race like the race he’s running right now. Warnock, of course, is facing Herschel Walker, the former football player and University of Georgia star — not only pitting two Black men for a seat in the Senate, itself a matchup that is vanishingly rare, but two Black men who present a contrast that’s almost impossibly stark. Warnock — the first Black senator from Georgia and the first Black Democrat in the Senate from the South, and not just a pastor but the pastoral heir of Martin Luther King Jr. at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — has made his life’s work a response to systemic racism. Walker has all but denied racism’s existence. Warnock as an orator arguably has few peers. Walker at times struggles to make sense. And while Warnock has some scuffs to his sheen — a contentious divorce, an arrest from some 20 years back, controversial snippets from pulpits and pages from his decades of scholarship — Walker’s catalogue of flaws includes lies, allegations of domestic violence and a history of a personality disorder that made him consider killing a man and also risk killing himself. Polls of late suggest Warnock has a small lead, but a polarized and anxious national mood, an uncertain economic environment and a midterm cycle that appears to favor the GOP have made a toss-up out of a contest that shouldn’t be close. And the stakes are high. It could catapult Warnock into another echelon of national importance. It could decide the balance of power in the Senate. It could help determine the country’s very tenor and direction for a generation to come.
In 2020 and (in the run-off that extended into the first week of) 2021, Warnock won with the mantra to “remain the reverend” — a campaign that combined a faith-based social-justice heart with a careful prebutting of Republicans’ race-laced attempts to cast Warnock as radical by calibrating a benign look and vibe. He wore a puffer vest. He was in ads showing him walking a dog (that wasn’t his) on the sidewalks of identifiably suburban streets. He presented the even keel that’s been a Warnock hallmark from the time he was a teen.
This time, though, according to more than 50 interviews with officials, insiders and operatives from both parties and campaigns, Warnock is doing all that and then some — running in a way that’s every bit as disciplined but in a year that’s considerably more difficult. After earning by two points the last two years of the late Republican Johnny Isakson’s term, Warnock is a low-ranking member of an often stalemated, 50-50 Senate from a mostly riven, more-or-less 50-50 state. While continuing to push for voting rights even as Democrats’ signature bills have been stopped and stalled — the franchise has been the most elementally important issue for Warnock forever — his legislative efforts and accomplishments have focused on lowering the cost of insulin and other prescription drugs, investing in infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing, and prioritizing seniors, farmers, servicemembers and veterans and the lower- and middle-class Georgians he most conspicuously aims to serve. He talks about Covid relief in terms of “tax cuts.” He talks about other spending bills in terms of “jobs, jobs and jobs.” And he seldom so much as says the name Joe Biden — frustrating foes trying to tie him in ads to the deeply unpopular president. “He is a very gifted politician,” Stephen Lawson, the head of a pro-Walker Super PAC, told me — a compliment not necessarily meant to be. “We fully understand,” Lawson said, “that he’s going to be very difficult to unseat.”
More broadly, though, the way Warnock has operated in the last year and a half in the Senate as well as the way he’s vying now for a full six-year term are natural extensions of the tensions that have animated his life and his work — the “double-consciousness” of the Black church, as he describes it in the 2014 book drawn from his doctoral dissertation, the “complementary yet competing sensibilities” of “revivalistic piety and radical protest,” the saving of souls and the salvation of society, what King called “long white robes over yonder” and “a suit and some shoes to wear down here.” In strictly political terms, this tension and connection might be expressed as purity versus pragmatism. And for Warnock, ever the reverend, the balancing act between the high and the low, the eternal and the utterly quotidian, sometimes means taking a run-of-the-mill legislative compromise — one that doesn’t even allocate any actual money for the asphalt — and attempting to frame it as the apotheosis of our ongoing experiment of representative self-government.
“There is a road that runs through our humanity,” Warnock said again at the lectern in the gym, “that is larger than politics, bigger than partisan bickering, certainly bigger than race, bigger than geographical differences … and my job as a legislator, and our job as citizens, is to find our way to that road that connects us to one another — so that everybody can get to where they need to go, so that every child can have access to a good, quality education, so that everybody can have affordable health care …”
Now the applause was so loud he barely could be heard.
“Our job is to build out that road!”
‘The politeness, the kindness, the nonviolent way of being in the world’
Born on July 23, 1969, precisely five years and three weeks after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law at the White House the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Warnock “never drank from a colored water fountain,” never “used a colored restroom,” never “attended a school assigned by the color of my skin,” as he writes in his recent memoir, A Way Out of No Way.
The eleventh of 12 children, he grew up in Kayton Homes public housing in an apartment with four bedrooms, a single bathroom and a set of World Book encyclopedias. His parents were Pentecostal pastors, his father straining to make ends meet by selling to a steelyard old, abandoned cars — but, “thanks to the assistance of the federal government,” Warnock recalls, “my family never lived outdoors, we never went hungry, and I never missed out on an opportunity to learn.”
In preschool, he attended Head Start, which aims to boost the early education of underprivileged preschoolers — one of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs “that have given America’s poor children a chance,” as Warnock has said, “and lifted poor Black children from the sunken places caused by generations of willful racism.”
At Myers Middle School and Johnson High, where Warnock played the baritone horn and was elected senior class president and voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” he was “a free-lunch kid.” He was a participant, too, in Upward Bound — another LBJ program offering academic enrichment for poor students with the potential to be the first in their families to go to college. The experience included six weeks of college prep one summer at Savannah State and a field trip to Atlanta to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where Warnock stood, stared and got goosebumps reading King’s words.
Back in Savannah, at the public library on Bull Street, he listened to LP audio recordings of some of the civil rights movement’s mass meetings. A favorite featured King’s sermon known as “A Knock at Midnight” — in which he called on the church to be “the conscience of the state” and to “speak and act fearlessly and insistently” and “participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice.” Warnock listened to it again and again.
And in 1987 when it came time for college, Warnock consciously modeled King, opting to attend his alma mater at Morehouse in Atlanta — the small, all-male, historically Black institution with an ethos of not only intellectual advancement but social action through leadership and service. The president of Morehouse put a fine point on that charge when we talked last month. “Leadership: How do you make it happen?” said David Thomas. “Service: Who do you make it happen for?”
Paying for school largely with federal Pell Grants and low-interest student loans, Warnock was a psychology major and a religion minor. As a freshman, he was chosen to be a speaker at a fall convocation. And at the on-campus chapel named after King, he was picked by his peers to be the president of the Chapel Assistants, a prominent group of students aspiring to attend seminary.
“The seriousness that you see,” “the careful use of language,” “the politeness, the kindness, the nonviolent way of being in the world is the way he was as a student from the first day I met him,” said Lawrence Carter, the longtime dean of the chapel and one of Warnock’s utmost mentors. “He did not swear. He did not drink. He did not smoke. He did not dress in a voguish way,” Carter told me. “And he’s the only one I can consistently remember coming into the chapel library at the time to study by himself. He would just sit there outside my office, and he would sit there for long periods of time, and write and read, and write and read.”
During Warnock’s junior year Carter got a call from the pastor of Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.
“John Porter was one of Martin King’s youth assistants at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery when Martin was the pastor there and John Porter was a student at Alabama State,” Carter told me. “So John Porter called me and said, ‘Dean, I want you to select for me one of your best students to be my summer intern. Put me in touch with him and we will bring him down and we’ll take good care of him during the summer and give him a lot of experience. Do you have anybody in mind?’ I said, ‘I certainly do.’ He said, ‘What’s his name?’ I said, ‘Raphael Gamaliel Warnock.’”
‘When preachers tell the truth, it makes people uncomfortable’
“It’s good to be in church this morning,” Warnock said.
We were a little more than a mile from Ebenezer, in a ballroom off the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, but this was a broad convening of African Methodist Episcopal clergy at a Turner Theological Seminary alumni breakfast. Warnock was the keynote speaker. And we were most assuredly in church.
“I’m a living witness that the prayers of the righteous avail much,” he said from the lectern on the dais. “And I need your prayers as I continue to do battle with beasts at Ephesus.” The crowd was stirring. “I’m a United States senator, but I have not forgotten — in fact, I know now better than ever — that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities, against spiritual wickedness in high places, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.” Now nodding. “And if my people” — clapping — “who are called by my name, would humble themselves and pray — pray with your lips and pray with your legs — seek my face, turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, I will forgive their sins, and I will heal the land.” The crowd was alive.
“AME church, you were born trying to heal the land. You were born fighting for freedom. You were born bearing witness against the heresy that racism and Christian identity are reconcilable,” Warnock said. “We were born, the Black church — and when we say the Black church, we have never, ever meant anything racially exclusive about that — in fact, we were born bearing witness, against segregation, and against bigotry.” Amens and uh-huhs.
“Talkin’ about the anti-slavery church. Lucretia Alexander, former slave, said in her testimonials that the preacher would come — that is, the missionary preacher — and he preached the same sermon, she said, every Sunday. ‘Don’t steal your master’s hogs. Don’t steal your master’s chickens. Do whatsoever your master says.’ She said, ‘But later at night.’ She said, ‘We’d have a real meetin’, with some real preachin’. It is no accident,” Warnock said, “that the first Black United States senator was an AME preacher named Hiram Revels. I stand on his shoulders, and it is in that moral tradition that I seek to do my work. I am a product, not of the AME church, but of you in a larger sense — the Black church, the anti-slavery church.”
The church in which Warnock was forged. After Morehouse, in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, he found a new mentor and adviser in James H. Cone — “the father of Black liberation theology,” according to Warnock, “and one of the most important theologians of the 20th century.” In his third year at Union, Warnock took from Cone a course based on his book about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in which he compared the different approaches of the movements they led — “the two main resistance traditions in African-American history and culture,” in the words of Cone, “integrationism and nationalism” — but also emphasized the ways the civil rights icons moved toward each other toward the respective ends of their assassination-ended lives. “As important as black nationalism is for the African-American struggle, it cannot be the ultimate goal,” wrote Cone. “The beloved community” — King’s famous phrase — “must remain the primary objective for which we are striving. On this point Martin was right: ‘For better or worse we are all on this particular land together at the same time, and we have to work it out together.’”
Warnock earned master’s degrees in both divinity and philosophy before beginning his doctorate in systematic theology. His master’s thesis, which received the highest grade, a “Credit with Distinction,” was called “Churchmen, Church Martyrs: The Activist Ecclesiologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.” — King and the German Lutheran “pastors,” in Warnock’s assessment, “who pushed the boundaries of the church” and “refused to be confined to the academy.” What that meant for Warnock was becoming an intern minister at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church — led by the renowned activist pastor, and fellow Morehouse man, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, and the former home, too, of the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first Black congressman from New York, who legislated in Washington for 26 years but never stopped returning to Harlem to preach to his flock. Throughout the 1990s, as Warnock at Abyssinian stair-stepped from intern minister to youth pastor to assistant pastor, he “moved,” as he puts it in his memoir, “between the ivory towers of Union and the ebony trenches.” In 1999, he was arrested for the first time — protesting the police shooting of the 23-year-old unarmed Black man named Amadou Diallo.
Six years later, at the age of all of 35, after just four years as the senior pastor at Baltimore’s Douglas Memorial Community Church, Warnock became just the fifth senior pastor in the more-than-century-long history of Atlanta’s Ebenezer — having wowed the congregation with a kind of trial sermon in which he knitted together two passages of scripture in Matthew 17. “The Power on the Mountain and the Pain in the Valley,” he called it, preaching about “the high spiritual encounters we have in church and the work we are called to do in the world,” “the relationship between worship and witness,” “the mountain high and the valley low.”
Ever since, from what is one of the country’s most important pulpits, Warnock has spoken out against voter suppression, the war in Iraq, the overincarceration of Americans but especially Black Americans, and the death penalty — “state-sanctioned murder,” in his words, and “the final fail-safe of white supremacy.” He wore a hoodie in the pulpit after the killing of Trayvon Martin. He was arrested at the state Capitol and again at the U.S. Capitol protesting for access to affordable health care. He hosted an interfaith meeting on climate change with former Vice President Al Gore. He was the spokesman and then the chair of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project.
And although Warnock never technically endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, he was an ardent proponent of the candidacy of the first Black president, calling him “the answer to Ebenezer’s prayers” and “the embodiment of the American dream.” When Obama’s pastor just about derailed his historic bid — “God damn America,” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said in the incendiary clip — Warnock was an ally. Obama might have saved his White House bid by condemning Wright’s remarks as “a profoundly distorted view of this country.” Warnock, on the other hand, defended Obama by defending Wright — by asking Americans to think harder about what Wright had said and why. And he did it on Fox News.
“We celebrate Reverend Wright,” he told Greta Van Susteren, “in the same way we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth, very often, it makes people uncomfortable. And I think that the country has been done a disservice by this constant playing, over and over again, of the same sound bites outside of context. And we’ve seen this before. Sometimes we are miseducated by playing the sound bites of people whom we appreciate and adore — Martin Luther King Jr., for example. Over and over again, we hear certain speeches — ‘I have a dream.’ But I would remind your listeners that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great patriot indeed, but the same Martin Luther King Jr. who had a way of saying my country ‘tis of thee said that America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. He said the judgment of God is upon America. He was working on a sermon …”
Van Susteren tried to cut in.
Warnock was undeterred.
“… prior to his death, which he never got a chance to preach …”
“Reverend,” Van Susteren said.
Warnock kept talking.
“… entitled ‘Why America may go to hell,’” Warnock said. “Those are the words of Dr. King.”
“No one in American history has addressed more eloquently or advanced more effectively the ideals of freedom, justice and equality than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Warnock in 2012 wrote in a foreword in a book of King’s sermons. “His epoch-making impact on law, public discourse and culture is all the more stunning when one considers that he was a private citizen who never ran for public office and never held any official role within government.”
And yet here he was now, a decade later, at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, at the Turner alumni breakfast, the Reverend Senator Raphael Warnock.
“Praying lips. Praying legs,” Warnock said again.
“That’s why a preacher decided to get involved in the messiness of politics,” he said. “I’m trying to help save the soul of America. That was Dr. King’s motto. Redeem the soul of America.”
‘Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea’
Warnock formally introduced himself to his new colleagues in his maiden speech in March of last year. The eleventh Black United States senator ever, he told them he has a seat that was held when he was born by a staunch segregationist. He told them his mother who “used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls in January and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
The speech is worth reading or watching or listening to in full, but Warnock landed hardest on the right to vote. “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. It is not just another issue alongside other issues,” he said. “This issue — access to voting and preempting politicians’ efforts to restrict voting — is so fundamental to our democracy that it is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule, especially one historically used to restrict the expansion of voting rights” — the filibuster. He called democracy “the political enactment of a spiritual idea: the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine and a right to participate in the shaping of our destiny,” he said. He conjured the image of John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Bloody Sunday beatings. “And we in this body would be stopped and stymied by partisan politics? Short-term political gain? Senate procedure?”
“He definitely has a mastery of oratory that few, if any other senators,” Booker told me, “ever have come close to.” But oratory of even the most pressing or impressive sort sometimes can do only so much in the face of the scut work of actual change. The For The People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — they remain unpassed.
“He hasn’t done anything in the Senate since he’s been there,” BJ Van Gundy, a Georgia GOP vice chair, told me. “I’m not sure any senator can claim that he’s accomplished anything,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said. “Tick off for me all the things this current 117th Senate has done.”
What Warnock’s done, though, is what he can, and also what is pretty much politically necessary in a hard cycle in a purple state. He’s focused most on nuts-and-bolts problems like supply chain issues and shortages of semiconductor chips and other “kitchen-table” concerns. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, the Commerce Committee, the Banking Committee, the Joint Economic Committee, and the Special Committee on Aging, he’s zeroed in on gas prices and the cost of prescription drugs and has positioned himself as a champion of the recently passed CHIPS and jobs and competition bills. At times bucking the Biden administration, he’s pushed for more student debt relief and teamed with Republican congressman Buddy Carter of Georgia to prevent the closure of a military facility in Savannah, with Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama to try to help the peanut farmers of Georgia and with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to earn increased funding to try to reduce maternal mortality. He has been measurably one of the more bipartisan members of the Senate.
“He is clearly trying to play this moderate role,” said Lawson, the head of a pro-Walker Super PAC. “But he’s still sort of lockstep with Biden and is seen that way. I mean, I think his voting record with Biden is over 95 percent.” It’s 96.2.
“He’s focusing on bread-and-butter issues,” longtime Democratic Senate aide Jim Manley said. “Warnock is almost singularly responsible for just about every single person in this country getting a $2,000 check in their bank accounts,” said Steve Phillips of Democracy in Color. “Is that not delivering on economic issues?”
“I’ve never seen a senator be so effective so quickly,” said Adam Jentleson, a former Democratic Senate aide and the author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.
“He’s been surprisingly effective,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told me, nodding to the unusual way he was elected, resulting in a short-term window to do what is really long-term work — and the reality that Warnock’s essentially been running for the Senate, first to get in, then to stay in, for two and a half years straight.
“And he’s worked with Ted Cruz,” Brown quipped. “I can’t say I’ve done that.”
Interstate 14 currently is only in Texas and only 25 miles long, and its completion is a long way off — but when the Cruz-Warnock amendment passed, lawmakers couldn’t help but burst into applause. “Miracles happen,” said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, citing the “uncommon pairing.”
“Somewhere,” King once said, “there has to be a synthesis. I have to be militant enough to satisfy the militant, yet I have to keep enough discipline in the movement to satisfy white supporters and moderate Negroes.” Whereas at the time the split in the country was more explicitly racial, it now runs along more avidly ideological lines. “There must be somebody,” King said, “to communicate to the two worlds.”
“We have to, I think, anchor ourselves in the story of folks who’ve always fought a good fight,” Warnock said in a conversation earlier this summer on C-SPAN with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. “And I think we have to be willing to stretch ourselves to create unlikely alliances,” he said, “in order to do good work.”
‘We’re somewhere between January 5 and January 6’
Warnock, of course, was elected on January 5, 2021. “You sent me to the Senate!” he said now to the crowd of Black and white faces in Dalton in the rec-center gym. “Everybody wanted to talk to me the next morning. ‘CBS This Morning,’ ‘Good Morning America, ‘Morning Joe’ — every show with ‘morning’ in it, I talked to them. I knew I had arrived because I was on ‘The View’ talking to Whoopi Goldberg,” he said to laughter. “So I was feeling good that morning. The morning,” he said with a pregnant pause, “of January 6.”
The crowd got hushed.
“And so here’s where we are, folks,” Warnock said. “We’re somewhere between January 5 and January 6.”
“This race,” Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of Black PAC, told me, “should not be close.”
“The fact that it’s even a question,” said Phillips, “is sobering.”
Out of the towers, though, and down in the trenches, it’s no sure thing.
The oppo file on Warnock was used in 2020 and 2021 and almost assuredly will be used again in 2022. Warnock was arrested 20 years ago this month and charged during a child abuse case with obstructing a police investigation at a summer camp run by his church in Baltimore when he tried to prevent a Maryland state trooper from interviewing youth counselors without an attorney or their parents present. The charges were dropped. A prosecutor called it a “miscommunication” and said Warnock was “helpful with the continued investigation.” In March of 2020, Warnock’s ex-wife with whom he has two young children accused him of running over her foot with his Tesla when he was pulling away to take their kids to school. She told police Warnock is “a good actor” and “putting on a really great show,” but paramedics found no evidence of injury and police did not charge Warnock with a crime. The contentious divorce, which finalized two months after the incident, is now a contentious custody dispute. Warnock, too, of course, is a professional talker, and he has compiled several decades of public speaking from which conservative critics might cull unflattering utterances of his well-established worldview. “I don’t think economic growth always means opportunities for everybody. In fact, sometimes economic prosperity can cause problems,” he said to a local reporter back in May of 1989, when he was a sophomore at Morehouse and a peer counselor in Democratic Gov. Joe Frank Harris’ efforts to lower teen pregnancy. “We must stop bowing down at the altar of capitalism,” he said in a speech in Florida in 2006. In Divided Mind, the 2014 book drawn from his dissertation, he writes of white churches’ “complicity and active participation in slavery, segregation, and other manifestations of white supremacy.” In his sermons, hours upon hours of which are archived online, people hear what they want to hear. When will the Walker campaign start hitting Warnock harder? Said an adviser: “Stay tuned.”
Walker, on the other hand, has lied about his educational achievements, his participation in law enforcement and the FBI, the size and success of his business ventures, and the number of children he has. “He’s lied so much that we don’t know what’s true,” a Walker adviser told The Daily Beast. “I’m going to blow your f’ing brains out,” he once told his ex-wife, according to his ex-wife. He told an ex-girlfriend in 2012 that he was going to “blow her head off” and then “blow his head off,” according to the ex-girlfriend. And in his 2008 memoir about his multiple personality disorder, he writes about playing Russian roulette repeatedly, putting a bullet in his gun and the gun to his head and into his mouth and sitting at his kitchen table and pulling the trigger. He says he considered killing a man for the late delivery of a car he had bought, fantasizing about “the visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood.”
Warnock is outpacing Biden and Abrams in Georgia in polls. He raised $17.2 million in the last quarter — $11 million more than Walker. And these candidates’ records, or their readiness for office, are not truly comparable, and it seems to me Republicans know it. A year after trying to pitch Warnock as an extremist, a Marxist or a communist — “the most radical and dangerous left-wing candidate ever to seek this office,” former president Donald Trump said at his rally here in Dalton the evening before Warnock’s election — the GOP gambit now is to cast him more as just another Democrat to try to turn the race into one not so much between two people as the two parties. “We can sort of muddy the waters,” said a GOP operative involved in the effort, pointing to the harsh polarization that could mean that up to 48 percent of the electorate on either side is set no matter what. “And there’s going to be $300-plus million spent,” this person said, “to fight over 4 percent.”
Warnock increasingly has needled Walker to commit to dates for debates in the fall, but when he is asked about Walker, and he is asked about Walker a lot, he always says essentially the same thing: “The people of Georgia have a real choice” — the rhetoric of someone “remaining the reverend.”
I watched Warnock drop by the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta to announce $293,000 of Senate funding. It wasn’t technically a campaign event, but really every event is a campaign event in an election year. “Dr. King said it best. ‘We are tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,’” Warnock said. “So I’m going to continue to work in a bipartisan manner to get things done for Georgia’s small businesses.”
I watched him preside over a Senate field hearing in a senior center in exurban Fayetteville about the cost of prescription drugs and his call to cap drug costs at $2,000 a year. “We were in our golden years, but the only people that were seeing gold were the pharmaceutical companies,” witness Gretchen Spring of Marietta said in her testimony about caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s and having to max out credit cards and dip into pension funds. Warnock asked her to say a bit more about her husband. “I do think it’s important sometimes,” he said, “to put a human face on the public policy.”
“He comes to your area,” Georgia Rep. Debra Bazemore told me after the hearing. “He comes, he sits, he listens.”
“The more we listen to Fayetteville, the better our chances of getting it right in Washington,” Warnock said when I asked him at the senior center why he had the hearing here and not on Capitol Hill. “Too often our politics is about politicians, so I had this hearing in Fayetteville for the same reason I return to my pulpit every Sunday morning in my church to hear from ordinary people who are not drunken by the waters of Washington, D.C.”
And in Dalton in the gym, I watched him tell the crowd of Black and white faces about the Supreme Court confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson. In the Senate chamber, he said, the vice president approached Warnock and Booker and told them to mark the moment by writing a letter, and she gave them her official letterhead to do it.
“I wrote a letter to a 5-year-old girl — my own daughter,” Warnock said. “And I said, ‘Dear Chloe. Today we confirmed to the United States Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. In the long history of our country, she is the first United States Supreme Court Justice who looks like you, with hair like yours. As we were confirming her, the vice president of the United States suggested I write a letter. By the way, in the long history of our nation, she’s the first vice president who looks like you, with hair like yours. I write just to say that in America you can achieve, you can be, whatever you decide to be.’”
The crowd responded with a wall of applause.
“‘Love, Dad,’” he said.
“I wrote that letter to my daughter,” Warnock said, “but it occurred to me days later that in the end that’s what legislation is. It is a letter written to our children. That’s what public policy is. At the end of the day, the public policy you would make, or fail to make, is a letter to our children. And we could get more of it right if we would ask ourselves each time, ‘What do we want that letter to say?’”
Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer at POLITICO and POLITICO Magazine.