A Pastor and Politician Who Sees Voting as a Form of Prayer

He likened voting to a “prayer for the world we desire,” and called democracy the “political enactment of a spiritual idea,” that everyone has a divine spark.

He invoked the legacies of civil rights heroes and “martyrs” who fought and sometimes died for the right to vote, even as he promised to pursue bipartisanship in pressing his policy ambitions.

Exulting in his victory Tuesday night, Senator Raphael Warnock showcased the dualities that have defined his career in public life.

He is a man of deep faith, the senior pastor at the Atlanta church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. And he is also a political tactician who has long believed that “the church’s work doesn’t end at the church door. That’s where it starts.”

“I am Georgia,” Mr. Warnock said after winning Tuesday’s runoff election, nodding to both the hopeful and the dark aspects of the state’s past. “I am an example and an iteration of its history. Of its pain and its promise. Of the brutality and the possibility.”

He is also now poised, some Democrats say, to be a more prominent national figure, as an ardent supporter of voting rights, a next-generation voice in the party — or, as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey put it, a leader who can speak to “a lot of the hurt in our country.”

“I don’t think America has fully discovered the leadership potential of Raphael Warnock, because he got elected and then was immediately in another election season,” said Mr. Booker, who has worked with Mr. Warnock on legislative issues including health equity matters, and who has campaigned for him. “He has the ability to do both the poetry and the prose of politics in a way that I think is rare.”

Mr. Warnock, a son of Savannah public housing who rose to become Georgia’s first Black senator, secured re-election on the strength of a strikingly broad coalition that reflected the party’s greatest political ambitions, winning a full six-year term after previously prevailing in a special election runoff.

Mr. Warnock’s election night party on Tuesday in Atlanta erupted when his victory was projected.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

He won over young progressives on college campuses and, polling before the runoff showed, Black voters across the board. He performed strongly in Atlanta’s racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, and secured support from some Georgians who voted for Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, but split their tickets to back Mr. Warnock — reviving a crossover voting practice that some political observers had assumed was all but extinct.

In significant part, that coalition was driven by opposition to Herschel Walker, the football legend nominated by the G.O.P. and backed by Donald J. Trump, whose Senate campaign floundered in the face of a barrage of allegations concerning his personal conduct, especially with women. His candidacy left some Republicans publicly concerned and privately apoplectic.

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

Card 1 of 6

A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

But Mr. Warnock, who blended his image as a social justice-minded pastor with a sense of humor and an emphasis on bipartisanship, also showed how a Georgia Democrat could win in a difficult political environment, even as every other statewide candidate in his party collapsed.

“‘Remaining the reverend’ was the phrase we used,” said Adam Magnus, Mr. Warnock’s lead ad maker. “It means remaining the unique person Raphael Warnock is. That is a combination of a moral sincerity, an empathy, a hard-working life story from where he started from to where he is now, and a relatability and a sense of humor.”

Raphael Gamaliel Warnock was born on July 23, 1969, the 11th of 12 children, to a family of modest means. His father was a pastor who also “hauled junk, mostly abandoned cars,” offering the metal in exchange for cash, he wrote in his 2022 memoir “A Way Out of No Way,” while his mother took care of the family at home, later becoming a pastor.

“She grew up in the 1950s in Waycross, Ga., picking somebody else’s cotton and somebody else’s tobacco,” Mr. Warnock said in his victory speech. “But tonight she helped pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.”

He gave his first sermon at the age of 11, and was deeply inspired by the legacy of Dr. King, whose church — Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — Mr. Warnock now leads.

Mr. Warnock is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Credit…Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Mr. Warnock, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, graduated from Morehouse College in 1991 before heading to New York City to study at Union Theological Seminary, staying in the city for about a decade.

It was in New York, former classmates said, that he deepened his instincts to put the teachings of his faith into practice in the public square. He studied under, among others, the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a founder of Black liberation theology, which emphasizes the experiences of the oppressed.

And at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Mr. Warnock became assistant pastor, he immersed himself in a world of Black civic and political activism. He was arrested at a protest for the first time in New York, objecting to the police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant. His own brother was sentenced to life in prison, in a nonviolent drug-related offense involving an F.B.I. informant, a turn of events that shaped Mr. Warnock’s views of the criminal justice system. (His brother was released in 2020.)

It was during his time in New York, Mr. Warnock later wrote, that the idea of running for Congress first occurred to him. But it would be years before he did so. Instead, he built a preaching career that eventually brought him to Atlanta, and to Ebenezer.

As a pastor, Mr. Warnock condemned police brutality and racial injustice and championed expanding Medicaid. Encouraged by Georgia’s changing demographics, he wrote, he considered running for the Senate in the 2014 and 2016 cycles before seeking the seat vacated when Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican, announced his retirement. He won after a January 2021 runoff that helped to deliver control of the Senate to the Democrats.

In that contest, as in this year’s, Mr. Warnock leaned heavily into his identity as a pastor, making it harder for Republicans to cast him as a generic Democrat.

“He’s literally in Martin Luther King’s pulpit every weekend,” said Jason Carter, a Warnock ally and Ebenezer congregant who ran for governor in 2014. “He has credibility that is unshakable in certain contexts that allow him to run his own kind of a race.”

In the 2020 Senate campaign, Republicans unsuccessfully tried to use Mr. Warnock’s career and past sermons to paint him as radically left wing. This year, they focused more on linking Mr. Warnock to President Biden. They also tried to make an issue of Mr. Warnock’s relationship with his ex-wife, with whom he has two young children.

Mr. Warnock’s team emphasized character and fitness for office and cast the race as a choice, rather than a chance to vent at the party in power.

And some Republicans conceded that Mr. Warnock effectively defined himself in a way that allowed him to both keep the Democratic base energized and to engage the middle.

Republicans “did not neglect to argue that his voting record doesn’t match his moderate rhetoric, they didn’t neglect to mention that he votes with Biden,” said Brian C. Robinson, who was a spokesman for former Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican. “His brand was stronger. It was a shield that deflected accurate attacks.”

Mr. Robinson called Mr. Warnock “the best performer I’ve ever seen in Georgia politics,” adding: “He’s up there with, as far as sheer talent, up there with Clinton and Obama.”

Mr. Warnock also campaigned on his ability to work with conservative hard-liners like Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

“I’ve spoken with more conservative Democrats who are really excited, I’ve spoken with very progressive Democrats on college campuses that are really excited,” said Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the 25-year-old elected in November to the House from Florida, who campaigned with Mr. Warnock on Monday. “That’s the future of our party.”

Mr. Warnock’s victory will undoubtedly prompt questions about his own future, as the country awaits Mr. Biden’s decision on whether to seek re-election and Democrats chatter about which midterm stars could emerge as party leaders.

“A lot of people want to move someone like him, they want to move him around the board like a chess piece,” Mr. Carter said. Asked if he thought Mr. Warnock had any ambitions beyond the Senate, he replied flatly, “I don’t.”

“He wants to do a good job as a senator,” Mr. Carter said, “but his children, his faith, his church — those things are really, really important to him.”

With a six-year term now his, Mr. Warnock sounded impatient to get started.

“Let’s dance because we deserve it,” he told his celebrating supporters. “But tomorrow, we go back down into the valley to do the work.”

Back to top button