early and often

Raphael Warnock Is the Exception

Senator Raphael Warnock.
Senator Raphael Warnock. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

I spent several weeks this summer following Raphael Warnock’s reelection campaign across Georgia, and the closest I got to a one-on-one interview was when I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer. It was August 17, the day Rudy Giuliani testified about 2020 election interference at the Fulton County courthouse. “I was wondering if you had any comment on Giuliani’s testimony this morning,” I asked the senator, who won his runoff against former football star Herschel Walker on Tuesday. Warnock’s team was working overtime to avoid the perception that its candidate was more of a national figure than a local one, which was seen as a vulnerability for his fellow Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams. Warnock replied to my suspiciously New York–sounding question with a dodge. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure that every eligible voter in our state can vote without any issues,” he said.

His caginess was striking given how his playbook evolved after the November 8 midterms. The final weeks of his rematch against Walker featured lots of big names from outside of Georgia, including Barack Obama and a rally headlined by Dave Matthews. The day before the runoff, Warnock did an event backed by Harlem’s DJ D-Nice, whose Instagram Live sets provided much-needed entertainment during the early pandemic. Each of these stars supplemented the corps of everyday voters and registered Republicans he drafted as surrogates, many of whom starred in ads where they reacted incredulously to weird remarks made by Walker. Others who voted for Republican governor Brian Kemp pledged their support for Warnock on-camera. What once felt like an intimate one-man show, marked by direct-to-camera appeals, had acquired the kind of megawatt visibility he’d spent most of the race avoiding.

Now that his party’s majority had been secured — a feat accomplished partly by focusing on how distasteful Republicans and their platform were — he was looser, louder, and more confrontational. This new Warnock came months after Giuliani, whose NYPD had arrested him for protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999, felt like too risky a target. But despite this strategic shift, the big questions behind Warnock’s cautious maneuvering held steady: Just how blue was post-2020 Georgia, and what dynamics from its redder days had stayed intact?

The Peach State shocked the nation in 2020 and 2021 by sending Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate and delivering Joe Biden the presidency. The 2022 midterms were a chance for Republicans to prove it was a fluke, and for Democrats, long shut out of state-level power in Georgia, to prove that it wasn’t. Each side went about its task by trying to make its candidate seem normal and the opposition seem deviant. Walker cast Warnock as an uppity outsider, joking about his nice suits and devotion to Biden, sometimes with a biblical twist: “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the ex–football star would say of the pastor. Warnock focused on Walker’s dishonesty and erratic behavior, like his lies about being a law-enforcement officer and the fact that he held a gun to his ex-wife’s head. It was a hedge against the fact that both men were quite unusual in this context — Warnock is Georgia’s first Black senator; Walker is both its first Black Republican Senate nominee and the first to express his preference for being a werewolf rather than a vampire. This was the first election cycle in Georgia with two Black Senate nominees, and each had to orient himself toward a standing political infrastructure that favored white conservatives. Walker assured them that he didn’t think for himself — “I’m not that smart,” he said in September — but would serve as their vessel in Congress. Warnock leaned into the pillow-soft image he’d projected in 2020, bringing back Alvin the beagle, whom he’d walked through the Atlanta suburbs in a famous series of ads.

Both approaches were rooted in a recognition that the GOP’s brand is still strong in Georgia. An early takeaway from the midterms was that Republicans underperformed because they’d run candidates who were too strange on platforms that were too extreme, especially for swing-state voters. Mehmet Oz with his crudités and cruel jokes about John Fetterman’s stroke, Blake Masters with his creepy shooting excursions into the Arizona desert — each ceded a winnable race due largely to what Mitch McConnell described as “candidate quality.” But with the exception of Walker, Georgia Republicans pulled off a rout, from Kemp to Brad Raffensperger all the way down the ballot. In the year of the embarrassing red wave turned trickle, this didn’t look like a state where the diversifying Atlanta suburbs signaled an inevitable blue majority. It looked like a state where the right-wing ruling party’s clout was so undeniable that both candidates sought proximity to it — Walker by getting Kemp to stump for him, Warnock by running ads featuring ticket-splitting Kemp voters who backed him, too.

To the apparent chagrin of GOP strategists, Walker made few meaningful adjustments to his November pitch, with one exception: He worked a lot harder to highlight the co-signs he was getting from Establishment Republicans. Besides the sudden presence of Kemp, who avoided Walker like the plague before he won his race comfortably on November 8, Lindsey Graham was an especially enthusiastic surrogate, appearing alongside the ex–football star on the stump and on TV, often speaking for long stretches in Walker’s stead. “Why are they afraid of Herschel Walker?” the South Carolina senator said during a Fox News appearance. “He transforms the Republican Party” by bringing in more Black people to join the women already diversifying its traditionally pale-and-male ranks. “Make conservatism look like America!”

The effect was to squeeze a lot of unusual dynamics into familiar molds, which proved to be apt. Seemingly against all odds, the Black candidate who had 12 personalities, several alleged abortion payouts despite being against abortion, and a handful of formerly unacknowledged children to his name got rebranded as a family-values Republican with the help of several sitting senators and Evangelical pastors. The other Black candidate cemented his spot as the junior Democratic senator from a Republican stronghold that had never sent a Black person to Congress’s upper chamber before him, and that had two segregationists in the Senate when he was born. What this says about Georgia’s durability as a purple state is still unsettled, save for the fact that, if state politics have really been transformed by its diversifying electorate, most of the 2022 ticket didn’t get the memo. With the exception of Warnock, ballots swung hard to the right. In defiance of what seemed to be the national mood, voters declined to penalize Kemp & Co. for what has been an extremist regime — especially with regards to abortion — by almost any measure.

Warnock may have beat the odds for a second time this week, raising hope that Biden can do the same again in 2024 and Ossoff in 2026. But the more sobering lesson might be that, for all that’s changed in recent years in Georgia, just as much has stayed the same.

Raphael Warnock Is the Exception in Georgia, Not the Rule