Raphael Warnock, heir to MLK’s pulpit, heads for runoff for Georgia Senate seat

The pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, once co-pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., now faces incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

(RNS) — The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a 51-year-old Baptist minister running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in the special election in Georgia, will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent, in a runoff to be decided Jan. 5. 

If elected, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the historic church once co-pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., would be the first Black senator in Georgia’s history.

He could face an uphill battle in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Sen. Zell Miller won in 2000. In the nonpartisan primary, Warnock finished Election Day in first place according to The Associated Press, but he benefited from the presence of third-place finisher Doug Collins, a conservative Republican congressman, who likely denied Loeffler an outright win.  The incumbent is now almost sure to inherit much of Collins’ support.

Loeffler, who was appointed a year ago to serve out the term of Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health, had been fighting accusations that she sold stock after a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus in late January, before many investors knew the full scope of the pandemic.

 In this Jan. 12, 2018, file photo, the Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The 11th of 12 children in his family, all brought up in public housing in Savannah, Georgia, Warnock has focused his campaign on issues that affect poor and minority citizens in the state. He has championed the expansion of health care coverage and a living wage. As pastor of Ebenezer, he has partnered with interfaith leaders on an initiative demanding an end to mass incarceration in a country that disproportionately imprisons Black Americans. 

At a rally in Atlanta on the day before Election Day, Warnock expressed confidence in his ability to rise to the top of the runoff contest, even though his name, alphabetically, was near the bottom of the list.

“I’m near the bottom but that’s all right because that’s where I was born,” he said. “I was born near the bottom yet I’m standing on this stage, running for the United States Senate. It is a testament to the promise of America and the grace of an almighty God.”

He has also positioned himself as an heir to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a fellow minister and fellow Georgian. “If you need somebody who, in honor of John Lewis, will pass voting rights in the Senate so that every voice is heard,” Warnock said in a speech Tuesday evening, “if you need a voice crying out in the wilderness of Washington, ‘here am I, send me.’”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on  Jan. 20, 2020. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

This story has been updated.