Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler took a break from tweeting her outrage at the impeachment of President Donald Trump last January to make a Martin Luther King Day speech at the Atlanta church where the civil rights leader once preached.
It was a routine stop for a Georgia politician. But this time, Loeffler’s brief and seemingly inoffensive remarks were imbued with an undercurrent of tension. The senior pastor, Raphael Warnock, was about to announce a bid for Loeffler’s seat.
After Loeffler told the assembled audience of church and community leaders that she admired the “sacred” church and its leaders, Warnock shot back from the pulpit, decrying, “People and politicians of every stripe, falling all over themselves to pay tribute, to offer platitudes, to give lip service to Dr. King."
As Warnock, a Democrat, and Loeffler, a Republican, head into one of two Georgia runoff elections that will decide which party has the Senate majority, the subtext on that day has been blasted to the surface, with Warnock’s position as a Black religious leader playing a central role.
Loeffler and her supporters are mining Warnock’s past sermons, writings and personal associations to back up her claim on a campaign website that he is “the most radical and dangerous politician in America.”
The question is whether the effort, designed to motivate Trump supporters to turn out, will also fire up many of the Black voters who helped President-elect Joe Biden become the first Democrat to win Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.
The attacks are unfurling in the aftermath of a racially charged general election.
Despite significant support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Republicans saw broadsides against Democrats as radical socialists who wanted to dismantle law enforcement as almost universally effective.
Loeffler has charged that Warnock “celebrated” Fidel Castro when the Cuban dictator visited a landmark Harlem church where Warnock was a youth pastor in 1995; that he is anti-Semitic for a 2018 sermon in which he critiqued Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; and that he is a “Marxist sympathizer who wrote a book condemning capitalism,” an apparent reference to Warnock’s 2013 book about Black theology.
"What you need to know is in our own communities, he doesn't care about the things we care about," she said at a recent rally in Marietta, Georgia, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Democrats and some religious leaders say the attacks deliberately misinterpret the teachings of the Black church to rile up the Trump supporters, a vital voting bloc Loeffler and fellow Republican Sen. David Perdue need in the Jan. 5 election.
“It’s not subtle,” said Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat who lost a closely watched campaign in neighboring South Carolina against Sen. Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham in November.
Harrison said he was subjected to similar attacks, with ads that darkened the color of his skin and depicted him as anti-law enforcement and pro-riot, even though he pointed out that members of his family were law enforcement officers.
“It does not shock me to see they are running a similar playbook in Georgia against Raphael Warnock, a man of the cloth. This is a reverend in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. A man of peace. And they’re going to say this is a man that is for defunding the police and for riots and chaos,” Harrison said.
Democrats also say that Loeffler’s attacks on Warnock’s associations, including his defense of a pastor whose sermons became a flashpoint in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, open her to criticism of her own network.
She accepted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican House member from Georgia, who has expressed support for the QAnon movement. Loeffler has also sat for interviews with right-wing media hosts who have been associated with white supremacist, misogynist and homophobic opinions.
Warnock’s campaign is also attacking Loeffler for stock trades she made as the market dropped at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and for mentioning the website where supporters could make contributions during an interview televised from the Capitol, a potential violation of ethics rules that bar fundraising on government property.
“Kelly Loeffler continues to attack Reverend Warnock by taking his words out of context to distract from her own record of looking out for herself and violating ethics laws,” Warnock spokesman Terrence Clark said. “Georgians will reject this desperate form of politics in January.”
Loeffler’s campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this story Friday. On Saturday, she revealed she was quarantining after two tests for COVID-19 gave conflicting results.
Move to the right
On that January day at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Loeffler, a wealthy business executive and political donor, was still battling the assumption from some on the right — including the president — that she was not adequately conservative.
She was appointed to the post two months earlier by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to replace retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson partly because she was expected to appeal to white, suburban women who had soured on the GOP during the Trump administration. Loeffler had a history of donating to Democrats and had even hosted voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams — who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Kemp — at an event for the WNBA team she co-owned.
But Loeffler took a sharp turn as she struggled to maintain her advantage in a crowded special election this year that forced her to compete with Republican Rep. Doug Collins, a staunch Trump ally, for the GOP base votes both needed to make it to the runoff.
She even picked a fight with players on the WNBA team over their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which she called a “radical Marxist group that actively promotes violence and destruction across the country.”
As she turned her attention to Warnock in the runoff, she has doubled down. An early ad showed a classroom full of children — all but one of them white — reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then flashed images of street riots and pictures of Warnock preaching.
“Raphael Warnock called police thugs and gangsters,” the male narrator says. “Hosted a rally for communist dictator Fidel Castro. And praised Marxism in speeches and writings.”
Warnock’s campaign said he was a youth pastor in 1995 who was not part of the decision to invite Castro to speak.
Factcheck.org found that his comments about the police referred to the officers who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, not all law enforcement.
Another ad, released Friday, showed Warnock at the pulpit declaring, “Nobody can serve God and the military.” Warnock said at a press conference earlier in the week that the ad misrepresented his interpretation of the gospel of Matthew, which teaches that no one can serve two masters.
“What I was expressing was the fact that as a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to God. And therefore, whatever else that I may commit myself to, it has to be built on a spiritual foundation,” he said.
Rhetoric radical or mainstream?
Republicans said that material is fair game.
“I’m confident they will force Rev. Warnock to answer for his record and his rhetoric, and I’m confident they will do so in a way that helps their candidate,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist who worked for Collins’ campaign in the general election.
Lake said he also wasn’t surprised that Democrats would try to turn Loeffler’s attacks against her in an effort to motivate their own base.
But people familiar with Black liberation theology said Warnock’s positions are well within the mainstream teachings of the church, much of which revolves around social justice and empathy toward the oppressed.
“When you are doing the work of preaching week in and out and trying to do a good job of speaking to people where they are, you are going to say all manner of things that if dug up and resurrected out of context later and produced in soundbites without context you are going to have trouble explaining all the nuances,” said Steven Harmon, a professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity.
Democrats also say the strategy could backfire in the runoff, which Republicans may be hoping follows the historical pattern of having proportionately higher GOP turnout than November elections.
Biden’s win in the Peach State could be attributed partly to the hundreds of thousands of new Black voters who registered in recent years as a result of efforts led by Abrams and Black church leaders.
Reginald T. Jackson, a bishop at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, said Loeffler might wish that she had done more to appeal to Black voters in January.
“If you look at the pictures and things that she uses, it’s to cast Rev. Warnock in a negative vein, and it’s to remind them that this is a Black guy. I don’t think there’s any mistaking it,” he said. “They are taking for granted that in a runoff, Blacks will not turn out like they did in the November election, and I think they will be bitterly surprised.”