From the pulpit of one of the most storied churches in America, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has blended his fiery sermons of faith and love with urgent social messages of fairness and democracy for the last 15 years.
Many members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the church of Martin Luther King Jr. — wondered from early on, whether Warnock, the church’s senior pastor, had political aspirations.
He confirmed those long-standing impressions by running for Senate in Georgia, and finds himself one runoff victory away from taking his influential voice to Washington, D.C.
“I have been preaching in this campaign the same message I have been preaching for years,” Warnock, 51, told NBC News. “I’ve been trying to point us toward the highest ideals in our humanity and in the covenant we have with one another as American people — that all of us deserve an opportunity to create a prosperous life for us and our families.”
As of Friday afternoon, Warnock received 32.9 percent of the vote, outdistancing his closest foe, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who garnered 26 percent of the ballots. Because Georgia requires a runoff if a candidate does not receive 50 percent of the vote, Warnock and Loeffler will go head to head Jan. 5, 2021. Republican David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff also will have a runoff that day for Georgia’s other Senate seat.
These battles may affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, creating a 50-50 split if the Democrats win both seats. If that happens and Sen. Kamala Harris becomes vice president, she would be the decisive vote.
Undoubtedly, Warnock’s will be a heated race, fundraising efforts could bring in millions from supporters throughout Georgia and across the country. Warnock did not waste any time; he held a virtual fundraiser Thursday night.
“What Rev. Warnock provides is a commitment to fairness that is unwavering,” Ebenezer member Cecilia Baker of Atlanta said this week. “His messages on Sunday are uplifting and almost always educational about the political landscape and how it impacts Black people. He fights for his community from the pulpit and will do the same in Washington.”
Warnock said there is no separation of church and state in his principles.
“My ideals are driven by my faith and what has caused me to fight for access to affordable health care, the dignity of work and voting rights,” he said. “I think your vote is your voice and your voice is human dignity. And we’ve got to make sure everyone has a voice in our democracy.
Former President Barack Obama voiced his support for Warnock in the run-up to the election. “You don’t find a lot of people in Washington like Rev. Warnock,” he said in an October campaign ad for Warnock. “And that’s exactly why we’ve got to get him in office.”
Warnock’s stature as a dynamic preacher at an historic church also helped cement his political stature. He and 10 others were arrested in 2014 at the Georgia Capitol when the state refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
He consistently voices his concern over voting rights and people earning a living wage. “We must pay essential workers essential pay,” he said.
“I look forward to getting to the U.S. Senate so I can help pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Warnock added. “I’ve always tried to leverage the moral truth to create moral good. My whole life has been about service. And that doesn’t end at the church door, it starts there.”
He contrasts his work and life to Loeffler’s and considers the choice obvious. Loeffler, a businesswoman, was appointed in December 2019 by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons.
Loeffler co-owns the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA, a league made up of 67 percent Black women. She openly opposed the Black Lives Matter movement and rejected the idea of slogans supporting the movement on her players’ uniforms or painted on arena floors.
The players called for her ousting as owner. “It’s ironic for her to make these statements and for her to still want to be associated with the team,” Dream player Elizabeth Williams said of Loeffler on NPR’s Morning Edition in July.
Warnock also criticized her record in the Senate.
“My opponent has been in the Senate since January,” he said. “We’ve learned that she knew a few weeks after joining the Senate about the pandemic — which has caused stress and death across the country and Georgia — and she did a good job of protecting her portfolio.”
Earlier this year, it was reported that before the Covid-19 pandemic sharply affected the economy, Loeffler was one of at least four senators who made millions of dollars worth of seemingly opportune stock trades. She had since said she and her husband would divest from individual stocks. An investigation by the Department of Justice over the matter was later dropped.
“The people of Georgia are still waiting for her to do something for them,” Warnock added. “So, the choice could not be more stark. Georgia has to decide if it wants a senator who was selected or one who is elected by the people.”
Follow NBCBLK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.