Kelly Loeffler tried everything to win. She attacked Raphael Warnock’s politics, his faith, and by extension, his race. In ads that darkened Warnock’s skin color and highlighted his alleged extremism, Loeffler played the greatest hits from an ugly old playbook. It didn’t work. Warnock will be the first Black senator from Georgia and, as the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie pointed out on Twitter, only the second Black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. Warnock’s victory is momentous, not just for what it may accomplish for the cause of civil rights, but for what it demonstrates about the viability of the tactics Loeffler used.
Not an original thinker by any standard, Loeffler simply campaigned the way a contemporary white Republican usually campaigns in the South, with an additional dose of Trumpism. She operated in the tradition of Lee Atwater’s Southern strategy, which instructed the GOP in the fine art of the dog whistle, and she stood on the shoulders of Ronald Reagan, who rode Atwater’s tactics all the way to the White House. At times she even resembled another conservative Catholic woman from her native Illinois: Phyllis Schlafly, who might have appreciated Loeffer’s anti-abortion politics, and the anti-trans rights legislation she filed during her mercifully brief time in the Senate.
But Loeffler’s strategy could not overcome the prophetic tradition of the Black church that is represented by Warnock, who pastors the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church. In her failure, Loeffler illustrates the true weakness not only of the Southern strategy but of the Christian right, which cocoons its racism in the language of religion. Loeffler aimed repeatedly at Warnock’s religion. By condemning American militarism, by calling himself a pro-choice pastor, but mostly by being Black and Christian at the same time, Warnock became a target, and thus assumed a position familiar to many of his new constituents. The Black church in America is prophetic by necessity. It exists in standing challenge to the power and cruelty of white supremacy, and white supremacy does not like confrontation.
Loeffler’s play failed because she assumed, wrongly, that she could mobilize an existing majority by playing to its fears and prejudices. But Loeffler, it turns out, was the one out of step with the public — and despite its best efforts, the GOP hasn’t fully disenfranchised the Black and brown South. Warnock won because the values he holds, and shares with his church, are popular. More popular than Loeffler’s overt greed and far-right cruelties; more popular than Donald Trump; and more popular, perhaps, than the white, reactionary religious alliance that keeps Republicans in power.