Senator Raphael Warnock is finally going for the Jugular in the Georgia Senate runoff with Herschel Walker

In his 2020 campaign for the Georgia Senate, pastor-politician Raphael Warnock and his team lived by an unofficial motto: “Stay that pastor.”

The idea was that Warnock, the proprietor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit in Atlanta, had to slide over the crap of personal attacks and messy party politics. In his victory over Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in that year’s runoff election, he succeeded in achieving this goal.

Locked in yet another contentious runoff, Warnock remains very much concerned with his identity as the high-minded Reverend. But this time, against an opponent very different to Loeffler, Warnock has added a bit more fire and brimstone to his sermon.

While the Democrat’s social media posts and campaign ads still play up his political brand — even echoing his famous “Beagle” ad from 2020 — Warnock has increasingly attacked the character and credibility of his opponent, Herschel Walker, a central element of his closing message. ahead of the run-off election on 6 December.

Although the University of Georgia football legend is one of the most scandal-plagued major candidates in history, Warnock spent much of the 2022 campaign avoiding revelations that Walker allegedly paid for two women to have abortions, had multiple children he did not had talked about. about, and was also allegedly violent towards his ex-wife. Warnock largely attacked Walker for his political views on issues such as access to abortion and health care, or his embellishment of his business and academic record.

In the final weeks of the general election, Warnock appeared to stop pulling his punches. To his millions of followers on Twitter, the senator increasingly cited his opponent’s record of serious controversies and misleading statements to make the case “not fit for the job.”

That strategy has only intensified since Warnock and Walker entered the four-week run-off campaign. “Herschel Walker is lying about the basic facts of his life,” Warnock wrote in a Monday tweet, listing his opponent’s false claims that he was a policeman, an FBI agent and a University of Georgia graduate. “He is not fit to represent Georgia.”

It was far from Warnock’s sharpest elbow move. Before Thanksgiving, Warnock met in Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville — where Walker’s former high school football coach detailed all the reasons his former star player was unfit to serve in the Senate.

“He’s been a little tougher, as people say, with the tweets this time,” said Jeremy Halbert-Harris, who was a senior adviser to the Georgia Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign for the 2020 runoffs.

Warnock’s aim, Halbert-Harris said, is to make the contrast between himself and Walker as stark as possible. “Especially in a race as close as this, you can’t leave any crumbs on the table,” he said. “He is drawing near, leave no stone unturned.”

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“People appreciate him hitting him harder in the drain,” said Nabilah Islam, a newly elected Democratic state senator. “It is important to inform voters why we cannot afford to have Herschel Walker in the United States Senate.”

Few would dispute the wisdom of this strategy, although there is a delicate balance at stake for the senator. Warnock’s backers argue that his profile – and now his record on politics in the Senate – gives him unique authority to offer this contrast to Walker. At the same time, the task of “remaining pastor” can become more difficult in the heat of a remarkably bitter and personal campaign battle.

For now, Warnock’s immediate goal is to remain the senator from Georgia. Charles Bullock, a longtime professor of politics at the University of Georgia, said that’s the simplest explanation for the strategy.

“Two years ago, he came across as the nice guy,” Bullock said. “If the vote had been good, I think he would have stayed above the fight and been a statesman. Warnock would probably have preferred it to play out that way. It is because of the changing dynamics of the competition that he has to change his strategy.”

The results of the general election in November provided some early evidence that the strategy made sense. Warnock led Walker by 1 percentage point, making him the only statewide Democratic candidate in Georgia to receive more votes than their Republican opponent.

In the final weeks of the general election, Warnock appeared to stop pulling his punches. To his millions of followers on Twitter, the senator increasingly invoked his opponent’s record of serious controversies and misleading statements to claim he was ‘not fit for the job’.

Notably, Walker received 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp received in his landslide re-election victory over Stacey Abrams. A number of Kemp voters either supported Warnock or simply refused to vote for Walker, and many observers believe that Walker’s much-publicized personal problems were a clear reason why.

Personal controversies and scandals have dogged Walker from the beginning of his Senate bid. Warnock didn’t directly make an issue of them for much of the 2022 campaign because he didn’t need to. Outside groups — both Democratic and GOP — hammered Walker with television ads about his past allegations of domestic abuse during the primaries and general elections.

In October, reporting by The Daily Beast revealing that Walker, an anti-abortion hardliner, had paid a girlfriend to have an abortion became a central focus of the race. Warnock largely refused to engage with the story. As one Democrat put it to The Daily Beast at the time, there wasn’t much he could add to what Walker’s own son, Christian, said publicly about the Republican’s failures as a father and as a family man.

But as the polls tightened in the final month of the race, Warnock became more aggressive. There was a noted increase in his tweets focusing on Walker’s character and integrity following their head-to-head debate on 14 October, with the moderators effectively giving Walker a run-through of the abortion revelations and Warnock declining to press the issue himself.

Although Warnock never mentioned specific Walker stories, they were so thoroughly in the public bloodstream that voters likely knew what the senator meant by tweets, such as one from Oct. 19 that said Walker’s “pattern of lies and disturbing behavior proves, that he is not ready to represent Georgia in the United States Senate.”

Two days before the election, Warnock stepped up the rhetoric, tweeting, “we’ve seen Herschel Walker double down on his lies in the face of all the evidence and we’ve seen this pattern of lying but also violence.”

That focus has only continued in the run-off campaign as Warnock seeks to turn the contest into a referendum on what he calls “competence and character” – both his own and Walker’s. For observers of the campaign, it has been a natural evolution of the strategy.

“He did it exactly on the timeline that makes sense,” said one Democratic aide. “He didn’t have to hammer the personal stuff earlier because it came out on its own.”

Walker and his GOP allies have their own closing message. It is severely negative for the Democratic senator – and has only become more so now that Walker can no longer argue that a vote against Warnock is a vote for a Republican majority in the Senate. For example, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell, has spent millions bolstering claims that Warnock’s church evicted residents from an apartment building it owns.

Georgia’s Democratic Senate candidate US Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks during a campaign event on November 26, 2022 in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

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In 2020, Loeffler and Republicans seized on Warnock’s decades of preaching to paint him as a “radical liberal”—a line of attack Loffler himself repeated so much during their debate that it backfired. That material has largely disappeared from the 2022 GOP playbook, but Republicans have continued a line of attack from 2020: amplifying critical comments about Warnock from his ex-wife in an attempt to cover up Walker’s own domestic scandals.

While Warnock’s ex-wife once claimed he was a “good actor”, claims he ran over her foot with his car have not been proven. Meanwhile, details of her claims that Warnock failed to pay child support are under seal by a judge.

Walker’s own Twitter account has come after Warnock in harsh terms, claiming he “only serves himself” and is not the decent man he presents himself to be. Still, the Republican hopeful has puzzled observers by making the issue of transgender people in college sports a prominent focus of the runoff campaign, even cutting a direct-to-camera ad featuring himself and a female athlete.

Speaking at campaign stops, Warnock speaks broadly about the importance of character and integrity, but saves the barbs for Twitter. Much of his personal pitch centers on support for proposals like reducing the cost of insulin and emphasizing his policy work with archconservative senators like Ted Cruz.

In the four-week campaign, both sides are figuring out how to make sure the voter math works in their favor on Dec. 6. Narrow margins play a role in how Warnock has chosen to escalate his attacks on Walker, according to Democratic strategist Nina Smith.

With both 2020 Senate races decided by less than 1 percentage point, a tight political landscape means bringing out every available anti-Walker voter, even if they aren’t otherwise comfortable voting for a Democrat.

“Throughout the cycle, there were certainly comments around his record, his lies, how he presented himself to Georgia voters,” Smith said of Walker. “I think the escalation is natural going into a runoff.”

Smith added that Democrats have a “battle-tested” turnout operation focused on the runoff process, but she added that different voting rules across all 159 counties in the state could pose the biggest threat to the Warnock campaign.

“The Warnock campaign will try to find votes in every corner they can.”

Bullock, the UGA political scientist, argued that the attack ads could also be designed not to persuade, but simply to dissuade Kemp voters from turning out and casting a vote for Walker — which would be a key ingredient to a Warnock victory.

If Warnock prevails, he will have secured an outright 51-seat Senate majority for his party – and finally a six-year term for himself after two brutal consecutive election cycles. Warnock’s allies believe he will succeed in “remaining a pastor”, regardless of how this unique campaign has forced him to adapt.

“Throughout this whole process, he has not affected how he presents himself,” said Halbert-Harris, the Georgia Democratic adviser. He quickly added a reminder: “He’s still preaching.”

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