But the GOP fear of a perfect storm has always involved the second Georgia Senate race, an odd special election with five potentially strong contenders thrown together on the initial November ballot, including appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D).
A confluence of events has created a moment for Warnock’s campaign that, if he can seize it, could turn into a political disaster for Republicans and a boon for Democrats.
Warnock, as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, oversaw the nationally televised funeral of John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights icon whose stature brought three presidents to Warnock’s pulpit for eulogies.
His bid to become Georgia’s first Black senator had already begun to find its footing after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing protests. And Tuesday, as the WNBA launched its pandemic-delayed season, many players adorned “VOTE WARNOCK” warm-up shirts before games, including those on the Atlanta Dream.
That’s the team Loeffler owns, a protest to the senator’s public opposition to basketball players embracing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now Warnock gets to test something he highlighted when he launched his long-shot campaign on Jan. 30, touting his rise from one of 12 children growing up in the Savannah projects to running the church the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used as his civil rights platform.
“Whatever it is, be ready,” he said, quoting his father in his campaign launch video. “I think Georgia is ready.”
In the 72 hours following the WNBA protest, Warnock’s campaign collected almost $240,000 along with 4,000 new donors, his campaign aides announced.
The question will be whether Georgia is, indeed, ready to vote Democratic again and whether Warnock is the candidate to meet that moment.
Republicans privately acknowledge they are not focused on Warnock’s candidacy. That’s because they think he has not lived up to his original billing, and they’re furiously defending so many other seats in November. Once that dust settles, Republicans expect an enormous amount of money will pour into Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff — particularly if this race decides which party holds the majority.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee initially feared that Warnock’s campaign would consolidate all Democratic support and might clear 50 percent in the November ballot, voiding the need for the runoff. That prompted an ugly public war between Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) and the NRSC, which pushed him to withdraw from the race.
Instead, Matthew Lieberman, son of the former senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, placed as the top Democrat, at 14 percent, ahead of Warnock, at 9 percent, and both Republicans were north of 20 percent, according to a July 29 Monmouth University poll.
Former U.S. attorney Ed Tarver, who is also Black, received 5 percent. If that scenario held in November, the two Republicans would advance to the runoff — but Democrats are adamant that will not happen and the party will rally around one candidate.
Warnock struggled early with fundraising as the pandemic hit but has since raised more than $4 million. He is ready to launch his first wave of TV ads later this month, after which Democrats believe he will pull away from Lieberman and Tarver.
This will also possibly give him more than two straight months to try to define his own image while Loeffler and Collins savage one another.
His Sunday sermons at Ebenezer Baptist, broadcast on a live stream, provide a glimpse into how he will campaign, with a message that combines two “covids,” one about the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged Georgia and the other built on racism.
Just after Floyd’s death, Warnock talked about how inmates in the United States still make up 25 percent of the world’s prison population, a touchstone issue for the Black community.
“We have built this massive infrastructure over the last 40 years, and the infrastructure has created its own distinct ideology,” he said. “It is the mutation of an old virus, COVID 1619, and in this land we have been trying to beat back this virus since 1619, when the record says some 50-odd slaves arrived on the shores of Jamestown.”
Whoever wins the Republican race is likely to question Warnock over a heated argument with his now ex-wife in January, after which a police report was filed alleging he ran over her foot with his car. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that no charges were filed and police found no evidence of injury, as Warnock denied the allegation and said the dispute revolved around him trying to prevent his wife from taking their children to her native Senegal.
Loeffler’s supporters believe her image has recovered among conservative voters because of her challenge to the BLM movement, which Trump has repeatedly accused of fomenting urban violence. Her career was nearly over as soon as it started as stock trades prompted a brief federal investigation into whether she traded on inside information about companies that would be affected by the mounting pandemic.
The case was dropped, and after initially falling behind Collins, she clawed her way back into the race by tapping her vast personal resources — she and her husband are worth hundreds of millions of dollars — and is running as a Trump acolyte.
Democrats are pleased with how both Collins and Loeffler are running nearly in lockstep with Trump.
Public and private polling shows the president struggling in Georgia, giving Biden the chance to become the first Democrat to win there since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Perdue’s own campaign demonstrates Trump’s unpopularity.
After three years of proudly embracing the president, Perdue has extinguished Trump from his ads. His latest touts the image of a results-driven centrist who supports federal funding to help schools deliver in-person and online classes at a time when the president only wants kids inside schools.
Stacey Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign showed the new path for Democrats, even as she came up short. As Democrats fight Republicans over ballot access and polling places, a new wave of voters has emerged in the Atlanta suburbs, and a new energy has been lit under minority turnout.
In the June primary, Democrats had 300,000 more voters than Republicans, according to Lauren Groh-Wargo, who ran Abrams’s campaign and now runs Fair Fight, a voter outreach group.
In that primary, 180,000 Democrats voted who did not participate in the 2018 election, including 70,000 newly registered voters.
“Republicans should be scared,” Groh-Wargo said.