Now, that push is entering its final act. Warnock was among the Democrats most heavily involved in writing the trimmed-down voting rights and pro-democracy bill unveiled this week in an effort to get the support of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). The big question ahead is whether Manchin and all the other Senate Democrats will embrace changing the filibuster rules so the bill can pass.
Even getting the Democrats to prioritize voting rights, and thus work to unite behind a bill, wasn’t easy — and might not have happened without Warnock’s singular focus. In his first speech as a senator, Warnock cast restrictive voting laws recently passed in GOP-controlled states, including Georgia, as “Jim Crow in new clothes.” Perhaps more important, in terms of trying to influence filibuster-friendly Democrats such as Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), he argued, “It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society.”
And throughout this year, in public remarks both in Washington and Georgia, Warnock has relentlessly focused on the urgency of voting rights. For months, there has been a lot of media coverage implying that the voting rights push is going nowhere. But it has kept moving forward because a huge coalition of progressive activists and senators such as Warnock keep pushing.
“Voting rights, in terms of it passing in this Congress, was dead in June. It was dead,” Warnock told me in an interview Wednesday. He added, “As someone who for years has registered voters in my church, who was John Lewis’s pastor, who has been engaged in voting fights for years, I was just not about to let that happen.”
“It seemed to me people were pivoting away from voting rights toward infrastructure, and I refused to accept that false choice. … So I went to the leadership and insisted that we continue to shine a bright light on this issue,” he said.
Warnock has been aggressive, yes, but he’s also acted strategically. He has positioned himself as a traditional, center-left, Biden-ish Democrat and, accordingly, isn’t calling for the party to dump the filibuster entirely and pass progressives’ entire wish list. Instead, Warnock emphasizes that his goal is simply for the chamber to pass a voting rights law, implying that some kind of small filibuster exemption for voting rights would be enough.
Also, unlike some progressive Democrats, he does not publicly scold President Biden, Manchin or others who are reluctant to alter the filibuster. Instead, he suggests that filibuster-friendly Democrats are as deeply committed to voting rights legislation as Warnock is himself. Whether or not Warnock actually believes this, praising his colleagues in public is a good way to create space to prod them in private.
And Warnock, according to people involved in the voting rights negotiations, is doing a lot of prodding in private. Behind the scenes in recent months, he has urged Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Manchin and others not to give up on passing a voting rights bill this year. In private, he adds an additional argument to his case, and one that might be more motivating to Democrats who want to hold their majorities in Congress: It will be harder for candidates such as Warnock to win elections if GOP voting laws stay on the books.
“In this defining moment in America, in this frightening moment, if we won’t get this done, we will have crossed a Rubicon that will do severe damage to our democracy for years to come,” Warnock told me. “We have to pass voting rights no matter what.” He added, “Failure is not an option.”
The odds are still long that a big voting law passes this year. Manchin and Sinema in particular remain very wary of weakening the filibuster, and there is almost no chance that the 10 supportive Republicans needed to overcome a filibuster will surface. But even so, this push won’t all be for naught for Warnock. He’s emerging as a voice of conscience and moral leadership that his party — and the country — desperately need.
When you look at Warnock’s life, he seems almost destined to have become this kind of leader and senator. The son of both a mother and father who have served as Pentecostal ministers, he went to Morehouse College to follow in the footsteps of his hero the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and continued on a King-like path from there — getting a doctorate and taking prestigious pastoral jobs. In 2005, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church King once ran, made Warnock its lead pastor. That church has a long legacy of being involved in politics, and Warnock is continuing in that tradition.
But Warnock hasn’t stopped being Ebenezer’s head pastor and, in fact, he gives a sermon most weekends. He is very much not your typical senator. But these are not typical times. And whether Democrats pass a voting rights bill this year, they have pushed the issue further and harder than I expected — in part because a pastor-activist-senator from Georgia wouldn’t have it any other way.