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Warnock’s balancing act: Stay positive on the stump, hit Walker in ads

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) greets supporters at a campaign rally on Oct. 8 in Columbus, Ga. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)

JONESBORO, Ga — Louis Johnson had several errands to run on a recent Saturday afternoon, but he decided to put them aside and come out to a local Jamaican restaurant and bar to see Sen. Raphael G. Warnock in action.

Like many Georgians, Johnson has seen the barrage of negative ads — personal attacks and partisan broadsides — being pumped out from both sides in the Georgia Senate race between the Democratic senator and Republican Herschel Walker. But he came to Warnock’s event in this small city just outside Atlanta looking for something else: Johnson wanted to feel out Warnock’s vibe. He left feeling upbeat about the senator’s positive message.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Johnson, 66, a technology consultant, said in the parking lot of the restaurant, where more than a dozen supporters were loudly chanting for Warnock as his campaign bus drove off.

“He’s got the demeanor of a winner,” he added. “He doesn’t act like, ‘I’ve got to belittle the guy next to me.’ And there’s some low-hanging fruit, you’ve got to admit … But instead he says, ‘No, I’m a pretty good guy on my own — and I just don’t need to go there.’ ”

But Warnock does go there in other aspects of his campaign. His campaign and outside groups have spent millions of dollars on ads attacking Walker. A new Warnock ad dropped Thursday calling Walker a “hypocrite” for campaigning in favor of a national ban on abortion, while a former girlfriend, and the mother of one of his children, alleged that he paid for her to have an abortion and pressured her to have a second one. An ad by a group tied to the Senate Majority PAC features comments by Walker’s adult son, Christian, who publicly accused his father of domestic violence against him and his mother. The group and Warnock’s campaign has also run ads using a television interview in which Walker’s former wife, Cindy Grossman, said he put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.

In a Senate debate a week ago that Walker skipped, Warnock offered one of his strongest rebukes of his opponent, mentioning everything from Walker’s misrepresenting his academic record to allegations surrounding his history of violence.

Walker has denied paying for the abortion and has said he doesn’t remember the incident with Grossman, and instead pointed to his history of mental illness.

The contrasting nature of Warnock’s campaign illustrates the balancing act the senator has tried to pull off in the final weeks of his campaign for reelection in a purple state. The race has remained tight, despite a constant stream of headlines about Walker’s personal life, as conservative Georgians have rallied to the defense of the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia. National Republicans are putting up a fierce fight for the seat, which they need to win in order to gain control of the Senate, and in recent days, polls have shown voters concerned about the economy and crime moving toward the GOP.

But Warnock has largely stuck to his strategy of avoiding directly attacking Walker on the campaign trail, focusing his stump speeches on his spirit of service, his willingness to work across the aisle and his efforts to represent all Georgians.

“I love all of the people of Georgia — the ones who voted for me and the ones who didn’t. I love them, too,” Warnock said during a campaign stop in Columbus earlier this month. “And I’m proud to represent all of the people of our state.”

Many of Warnock’s supporters agree with his approach on the campaign trail because they say they’re already hearing enough about Walker’s past and present controversies on TV and social media and would rather hear more about the Democratic senator.

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Warnock has sought to build a brand of politics that is an extension of his career as a pastor. He still preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which served as a home base for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and has a long tradition in social justice. With decades of experience uplifting crowds from his pulpit, Warnock the candidate appears most comfortable offering a positive message to crowds on the campaign trail.

“The reason why I return to my pulpit and the church every week is I don’t want to spend all my time talking to politicians. I’m afraid I might accidentally become one,” Warnock said during his Jonesboro stop, prompting cheers from the crowd. “I confess: I’m in politics, but I’m not in love with politics. I’m in love with change.”

Michael Thurmond, the chief executive of DeKalb County and a Democrat, said likability is critical for Warnock to win his race.

“He speaks honestly and forthrightly … and, you know, there’s his willingness to work with people who he may not agree with 100 percent of the time to build consensus,” said Thurmond, who has known Warnock for years.

Thurmond added that it’s smart for Warnock to stay away from talking about Walker, because a winning coalition for him includes some independents and moderate Republicans.

“Georgia is a purple state. It’s not a blue state,” Thurmond said. “So you have to keep in mind he’s trying to do something that has rarely happened in the history of Georgia politics. It’s tough.”

W. Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, applauded Warnock for “doing an amazing job of not responding to the shenanigans about Herschel Walker.”

But he is deeply frustrated that Warnock is not engaging Black men, in particular, in a way that “creates community” and increases turnout.

“He’s running a traditional campaign — and I don’t say that as a compliment,” Robinson said. “He could have used his identity to create a safe space for Black men to have real political conversations. But, instead … he’s running a center-of-the-road campaign because of polls of likely voters. That’s the problem.”

Robinson worries that Warnock has focused too much on appealing to moderates and not enough on engaging key base voters.

Warnock’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Polls have shown Warnock holding a narrow lead over Walker in the race, which stands in contrast to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who polls show is trailing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Polls also show some voters splitting their vote for Senate and governor.

A recent poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia News Collaborative found 9 percent of Kemp’s supporters back Warnock, while only 1 percent of Abrams’ supporters back Walker. Separately, a Quinnipiac University poll found 7 percent of Kemp’s supporters back Warnock, compared with 1 percent of Abrams’ supporters who support Walker. Altogether, this suggests somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of Georgia’s likely voters say they plan support Kemp for governor and Warnock for U.S. Senate.

The Democratic senator has also been leading with moderate and independent voters in polls. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found Warnock receiving support from 61 percent of moderate voters, and the Quinnipiac poll showed 55 percent of self-identified independents backing Warnock.

Warnock is running for reelection to a full term in the U.S. Senate after winning a special election runoff in 2021. He beat out then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed to the seat by Kemp after former senator Johnny Isakson resigned because of health problems. Warnock became Georgia’s first Black senator and the first Black Democratic senator from a former confederate state.

Polls have consistently shown that Warnock is more liked than Walker among Georgia voters. Fifty percent of likely voters said they have a favorable opinion of Warnock, compared with 39 percent for Walker, a recent Quinnipiac poll found. In the same poll, more than half of likely voters said they felt Warnock is honest, has good leadership skills and cares about average Georgians. Meanwhile, half or more said they feel Walker is not honest, doesn’t have good leadership skills and does not care about average Georgians.

Last month, a majority of Warnock voters said the main reason they were voting for him was because they like him, according to the CBS News Battleground Tracker poll. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of Walker supporters said their main reason for backing him was because they like him; almost half said their main reason was to oppose the other candidate.

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Warnock’s likability, however, has its limits. At a recent Walker rally in Carrollton, about 45 miles west of Atlanta, supporters were vocal in expressing their disdain for Warnock, frequently questioning how he could be a pastor and support abortion rights. Warnock has called himself a “pro-choice pastor” and said he supports women’s right to make their own health-care decisions. He often sums up his position by stating, “I believe a doctor’s office is too small for a woman, her doctor and the U.S. government.” However, he has not detailed what, if any, restrictions he supports on abortions. He would not elaborate on his position when pressed on the issue on the debate stage two weeks ago.

Jim Stevenson, 81, had sharp words to describe Warnock. “A man who professes to be a minister of the gospel and believes it’s OK to kill babies in the womb … is not a minister of the lord Jesus Christ. Maybe a minister of Satan but not of Jesus,” he said.

Stevenson, who attended Walker’s Carrollton rally with his wife, didn’t talk much about Walker specifically, but he emphasized that he thinks Warnock has been a failure on everything from the economy to the border since being elected almost two years ago.

Warnock’s supporters say his appeal transcends his party or his backing specific policies they support. They genuinely like him.

“I’ve very excited about what he had to say — the idea of really being about helping people and doing something with the office that you’ve been given in Washington and being concerned about the real lives of people on the ground,” said Charles Reed, who lives in Fulton County and sported a Warnock T-shirt at the Jonesboro event. “That inspires me to want to work on his behalf to get reelected.”

Kwinitha Lewis, 31, started volunteering for Warnock’s campaign less than a month ago. She said she didn’t go into it knowing too much about Warnock but felt connected to him because they both grew up in the church. She added that part of her support for him is because “he’s just more authentic” and “for the people.”

In Jonesboro, Warnock didn’t mention his opponent once. Instead, he spent a significant part of his 30-minute speech sharing his story: He grew up in public housing, was one of 12 children and both his parents were Pentecostal preachers. He went to Morehouse College, where he said he went on a “full-faith scholarship” because he didn’t have enough money to pay for the first semester. He’s father to two children, ages 3 and 6, joking that he’s a “mature dad” at 53. And he emphasized that he remains a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor, and looks at his political career as being focused on bringing change.

Earlier that day, Warnock held a rally in Columbus with more than 100 supporters out on a sunny morning outside the city’s first Black theater. Lula Knight, 76, and Steve Daknis, 56, were two of the first supporters to grab a seat next to the stage in anticipation of Warnock’s arrival.

In their small talk, Knight and Daknis, who are both retired from the military and met at the event, talked about being excited to hear from Warnock. They both want to elect Warnock to his first full term as a senator because he represents their “values.”

“Why am I voting for him? He’s a great guy. I think he’s representing Georgia’s values,” Daknis said. “Also, his opponent isn’t worthy of holding the office. So, I’m voting for Warnock, but I’m also voting against that guy.”

Knight said that Warnock stands for the same values she does.

“A lot of people vote for one thing, but he checks all of my boxes,” she said. “He has helped the people in Georgia since he’s been in office. He represents everybody.”

During his Columbus rally, Warnock again focused on his life story and emphasized his focus on working across the aisle to deliver for Georgians. He spoke at length about working with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on an amendment to the bipartisan infrastructure package that targets the planned extension of Interstate 14 — a story he frequently tells at campaign stops.

His focus on talking about bipartisanship stands in stark contrast to how Walker and Republicans paint Warnock, repeatedly saying the senator votes with Biden “96 percent of the time.” Even with his moderate messaging, however, Warnock hasn’t shied away from embracing some policies that have been popular with liberal voters, including student-loan forgiveness.

After the rally, Warnock emphasized in remarks to reporters that he has always reached out to all the voters of Georgia and has a record of working with people he doesn’t always agree with. “I’d like to think that even those who don’t always agree with me respect me,” he said.

A small group of older Black women who attended the Columbus rally afterward stood in the shade next to the theater and talked about Warnock and how they’re feeling about the election.

Theresa El-Amin, 74, shared that she’s a registered independent still hoping one day the Green Party will have a ballot line in Georgia. But, in this race, she’s certain she’ll be voting for Warnock.

“I vote for the better candidates in the two-party system, and there’s no question that Raphael Warnock is one of them,” El-Amin said.

Burma Williams, 72, a former educator, said she planned to get involved in get-out-the-vote efforts in the final days of the race to ensure Warnock wins. Asked how she felt about his rally, Williams was quick to share that she’s seen the senator before.

“I really enjoy him,” she said. “For me, there’s really no argument who is the best one to send up there.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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