Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock is a top GOP target — but can they settle on the right candidate to beat him?

·Senior Writer
·6-min read

Georgia Republicans are hoping to win back one of the two Senate seats they lost in the last election from incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock — but first they’ll have to agree on a candidate to challenge him.

Warnock is pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the congregation of Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. He won a runoff election in January to serve out the final two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term after the Republican retired due to health concerns, putting Warnock in the position of having to win a Senate seat in two consecutive election cycles.

Warnock’s victory, combined with a win by fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff in the same runoff, gave Democrats control of the chamber for the first time since 2014, allowing for the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March as well as the confirmation of many of President Biden’s appointees. Georgia will also see races for governor and secretary of state amid former President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations that the election was stolen from him there. In 2020, Georgia voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time since 1992.

Sen. Raphael Warnock
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

During the negotiations over the Democrats’ domestic spending agenda, Warnock became a top advocate for Medicaid expansion. In Republican-dominated states like Georgia that opted not to expand the program for low-income Americans through the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans are without health care. Warnock also voted in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was signed into law last week in a White House ceremony attended by the senator.

“I’m so glad we seized this opportunity for Georgia and didn’t let it slip by, and now I’m going to keep working in Washington to make sure these federal investments start flowing to Georgians and our communities as soon as possible,” Warnock said of the legislation in a statement last week.

He has also been a successful fundraiser as an incumbent, reporting $9.5 million in contributions from 145,000 donors in the third quarter of last year, giving him $17 million cash on hand in an attempt to defend his seat.

Along with Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Warnock is a top Republican target in next year’s midterms. Taking into account the typical midterm backlash against the party holding the White House, in addition to economic troubles and Biden’s sagging approval ratings, nonpartisan analysts have rated the race as a toss-up. According to tracking from FiveThirtyEight, Warnock has voted with Biden 100 percent of the time since taking office.

Warnock’s general election opponent for next November, however, is still far from decided. In late 2019, Gov. Brian Kemp defied the wishes of Trump and appointed local businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to the seat, hoping she could help shore up Republican support among moderates. Trump reportedly wanted Kemp to select Rep. Doug Collins, who had been a vociferous defender of the president during his first impeachment.

Loeffler immediately moved to the right in an attempt to hold off Collins, who said she was not conservative enough and challenged her in a primary. Loeffler said there wasn’t a single thing on which she disagreed with Trump and blamed China after the then president contracted COVID-19 last fall. She was a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, resulting in a feud with the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, which she co-owned before selling it earlier this year, in a state that’s one-third Black.

Kelly Loeffler and Marjorie Taylor Greene
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, left, and then-congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene at a news conference in Dallas, Ga., in October 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Loeffler also held an event in which she received the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the then congressional candidate and current Republican representative. In social media posts she made prior to her election in 2020, Greene appeared to endorse the execution of prominent Democrats, promoted the idea that school shootings were staged events and espoused both antisemitic and Islamophobic views.

While Loeffler said this summer she was considering another Senate run, the current frontrunner in the race is University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker. Walker already has earned the endorsement of Trump, who called him "a friend, a Patriot and an outstanding American who is going to be a GREAT United States Senator.” He’s also been endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and led the state’s GOP candidates in fundraising at the end of September, raising nearly $4 million in just five weeks.

The support from top Republicans comes despite multiple accusations of domestic violence. Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, claimed in divorce filings that he was physically abusive and threatened to kill her, including telling ABC News in 2008 that he had pointed a gun at her head. In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in 2012 an ex-girlfriend of Walker’s filed a police report in which she alleged he had threatened to “blow her head off” and then kill himself. Walker has denied the allegations and talked openly about his mental health issues.

One of his top rivals for the GOP nomination, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, has highlighted the reports, saying in a statement last month, “Herschel has threatened women, choked them, stalked them. He has put knives to their throats and guns to their heads, and he claims that he must be innocent because he never went to jail.”

In addition to the claims of threats, Walker has also lived in Texas for the last decade, only recently registering to vote back in his home state. The Associated Press has already reported that he potentially exaggerated his business successes.

Gary Black
Senate candidate Gary Black says that rival candidate Herschel Walker's history of violence against women should disqualify him. (Jeff Amy/AP)

Black, who has served as the state’s top agriculture official for more than a decade and has pitched himself as the experienced option, has raised $1.2 million so far in the race and earned a number of endorsements, including from former Gov. Nathan Deal. Other candidates in the primary include Navy veteran Latham Saddler, who’s raised $2.5 million, and Air Force veteran and small business owner Kelvin King.

Looming over the 2022 election in the state is Trump, who is being investigated by the Fulton County district attorney for potential interference in the 2020 election. Trump was recorded last fall asking Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn the election. Citing mistrust in the election process — which was promoted by Trump and his allies — Georgia Republicans passed legislation earlier this year making it more difficult to vote.

Raffensperger, who’s running for reelection, has become a consistent target of the former president for refusing to alter the results that showed Biden narrowly winning the state. Trump has endorsed Rep. Jody Hice, who has promoted election conspiracy theories and voted against certifying the 2020 results, in a primary challenge against Raffensperger.

“I think he’d already shown what his true character is,” Raffensperger said of Hice last week in an interview with the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast. “In fact, he certified his race with the same machines, same vote tabulations, and he said that was a good election for himself. And yet, for the president’s race, he said somehow that was tainted.”

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