In his 2020 campaign for Senate in Georgia, the pastor-politician Raphael Warnock and his team lived by an unofficial motto: "Remain the Reverend."
The idea was for Warnock, the holder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit in Atlanta, to glide above the muck of personal attacks and messy partisan politics. In his victory over Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in that year's runoff election, he managed to achieve that goal.
Locked in yet another contentious runoff, Warnock is still very much hewing to his identity as the high-minded Reverend. But this time, facing an opponent far different than Loeffler, Warnock has added a bit more fire and brimstone to his sermon.
While the Democrat's social media messaging and campaign ads still play up his political brand-even reprising his famous "Beagle" ad from 2020-Warnock has increasingly made attacks on the character and credibility of his opponent, Herschel Walker, a centerpiece of his closing message ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff election.
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Though 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 the revelations that Walker had allegedly paid for two women to obtain abortions, had several children he hadn't talked about, and was also allegedly violent toward his ex-wife. Warnock largely attacked Walker over his policy positions on issues like abortion access 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 million-plus followers on Twitter, the senator increasingly invoked his opponent's record of serious controversies and misleading statements to make the case he is "not fit for the job."
That strategy has only intensified since Warnock and Walker entered the four-week runoff campaign. "Herschel Walker lies about the basic facts of his life," Warnock wrote in a Monday tweet, listing his opponent's false claims that he was a policeman, a FBI agent, and a University of Georgia graduate. "He's not fit to represent Georgia."
It was far from Warnock's most sharp-elbowed move. Before Thanksgiving, Warnock rallied in Walker's hometown of Wrightsville-where Walker's former high school football coach described all the reasons why his former star player was unfit to serve in the Senate.
"He has been a little more hard, 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 goal, said Halbert-Harris, is to make the contrast between himself and Walker as stark as possible. "Especially in a race as close as this one, you can't leave any crumbs on the table," he said. "He is taking the approach of, leave no stone unturned."
"People appreciate that he is hitting him harder in the runoff," said Nabilah Islam, a newly elected Democratic state senator. "It's important to inform voters why we can't afford to have Herschel Walker in the U.S. Senate."
Few would dispute the wisdom of that strategy, though there is a delicate balance at play for the senator. Warnock's backers argue that his profile-and now his record on policy in the Senate-gives him a unique authority to offer that contrast with Walker. At the same time, the task of "remaining the Reverend" can get more difficult in the heat of a remarkably bitter and personal campaign battle.
For now, Warnock's immediate goal is remaining the senator from Georgia. Charles Bullock, a longtime professor of politics at the University of Georgia, said that is the simplest explanation of the strategy.
"Two years ago, he came across as the nice guy," Bullock said. "If the polling had been good, then I think he would have stayed above the fray and been the statesman. Warnock probably would have preferred it to play out that way. It's because of the changing dynamics of the contest that he has to change his strategy."
The results of the November general election provided some early evidence that strategy was a sound one. Warnock led Walker by 1 percentage point, making him the only statewide Democratic candidate in Georgia to get more votes than their Republican opponent.
Notably, Walker got 200,000 fewer votes than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp did in his smooth re-election win over Stacey Abrams. A number of Kemp voters either supported Warnock or just declined to vote for Walker, and many observers believe that Walker's much-publicized personal issues were a clear reason why.
Personal controversies and scandals have dogged Walker from the beginning of his Senate bid. Warnock did not directly make an issue of them for much of the 2022 campaign because he did not need to. Outside groups-both Democratic and GOP-hammered Walker with TV ads on his past allegations of domestic abuse during the primary and general election.
In October, reporting from The Daily Beast revealing that Walker, an anti-abortion hardliner, had paid for a girlfriend to obtain an abortion became a central focus in the race. Warnock largely declined 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, was publicly saying about the Republican's failures as a father and as a family man.
But with polls tightening in the final month of the race, Warnock got more aggressive. There was a noted uptick in his tweets focusing on Walker's character and integrity after their head-to-head debate on Oct. 14, in which the moderators effectively gave Walker a pass on the abortion revelations and Warnock declined to press the issue himself.
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While Warnock never mentioned specific Walker stories, they were so thoroughly in the public bloodstream that voters likely knew what the senator meant with tweets, like one from Oct. 19, saying that Walker's "pattern of lies and disturbing behavior proves he is not ready to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate."
Two days before the election, Warnock amped up the rhetoric, tweeting, "we've watched Herschel Walker double down on his lies in the face of all evidence and we've seen this pattern of lying, but also violence."
That focus has only continued in the runoff campaign, as Warnock seeks to make the contest a referendum on what he calls "competence and character"-both his own and Walker's. To observers of the campaign, it's been a natural evolution of 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 was coming out on its own accord."
Walker and his GOP allies have a closing message of their own. It is harshly negative on the Democratic senator-and has only grown 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 instance, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell, has spent millions to amplify allegations that Warnock's church has evicted residents from an apartment building it owns.
In 2020, Loeffler and Republicans seized on Warnock's decades of sermons to paint him as a "radical liberal"-an attack line Loffler herself repeated so much during their debate that it ended up backfiring. That material has largely disappeared from the 2022 GOP playbook, but Republicans have continued with one attack line from 2020: amplifying critical comments about Warnock from his ex-wife, in an attempt to cover for Walker's own domestic scandals.
While Warnock's ex-wife once claimed that he was a "great actor," allegations that he ran over her foot with his car have not been proven. Details regarding her claims that Warnock did not pay child support, meanwhile, are under seal by a judge.
Walker's own Twitter account has gone after Warnock in harsh terms, arguing he "only serves himself" and is not the decent man he presents himself to be. Yet, the Republican hopeful has puzzled observers by making the issue of transgender people in college sports a prominent focus in the runoff campaign, even cutting a direct-to-camera ad featuring himself and a female athlete.
When he is speaking at campaign stops, Warnock talks broadly about the importance of character and integrity, but saves the barbs for Twitter. Much of his in-person pitch is centered on support for proposals like reducing the cost of insulin and emphasizing his policy work with arch-conservative senators like Ted Cruz.
In the four-week campaign, both sides are gaming out how to ensure the voter math works out in their favor on Dec. 6. Tight margins play a role in how Warnock has chosen to escalate his attacks on Walker, according to Democratic strategist Nina Smith.
With both the 2020 Senate runoffs being decided by under 1 percentage point, a tight political landscape means bringing out any anti-Walker voters available, even if they aren't otherwise comfortable voting for a Democrat.
"Over the course of the entire cycle, there was definitely commentary 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."
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Smith added that the 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 bigger threat to the Warnock campaign.
"The Warnock campaign will try and find votes in any corner they can."
Bullock, the UGA political scientist, argued that the attack ads could also be designed not to persuade but to simply dissuade Kemp voters from showing up and casting a ballot 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 that he will succeed in "remaining the Reverend," no matter how this unique campaign has forced him to adapt.
"Through this entire process, he has not swayed on how he presents himself," said Halbert-Harris, the Georgia Democratic adviser. He quickly added a reminder: "He still preaches."
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