Like most campaign ads, the ads from Loeffler and her allies contain varying degrees of truth. But Warnock has been attacked more than any other candidate in paid TV commercials in the Georgia runoffs. Some Democrats say he’s not punching back hard enough. But as a Black man running against a white woman in the Deep South, fighting back is complicated.
Warnock’s response, or relative lack thereof, isn’t a mere reflection of his temperament. It’s a deliberate calculation by his campaign, which believes that a Black candidate, particularly a Black man, can’t afford to be seen as angry, aggressive or defensive when running against a white candidate — particularly a white woman.
The strategy, embraced by Black candidates in other races throughout the nation, is born of the fact that no Black Democrat has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate from the South. Only six African-Americans have ever been elected to the chamber and just two Black people have been elected governors in the nation’s history
Even if the candidates don’t explicitly bring up race, on the campaign trail, the specter of race still hovers. Black candidates need to constantly calibrate for it, said Jared Turner, who advised Mike Espy, a Black Democrat, in his unsuccessful senate bid this year against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a white Republican woman.
“It’s very hard for a Black man to be aggressive or even just respond in kind to a white female because if you do, they’re gonna call you ghetto,” Turner said. “They’re going to call you combative, an angry Black man or angry Black woman – that you’re unprofessional. They call us beasts. They call us dangerous. The dog-whistle politics of being too ‘Black.’”
Turner said the added dynamic of a Black man running against a white woman in the Deep South adds an extra layer of cultural complexity with echoes of “Birth of a Nation,” the first movie screened inside the White House in 1915, which depicted Black men in the Deep South absconding with white women.
Publicly, Warnock and his campaign have downplayed talking about race or the extra burden it could place on the candidate. But privately, advisers acknowledge it’s an ever-present reality that they’ve war-gamed.
“We have no reason to give [Republicans] more fodder for their attack ads,” said one Warnock aide, adding that white suburban Georgians are those most likely to be turned off by Warnock if he hit back too hard. They’re crucial for a Democrat win in the state, where a majority of the electorate is white.
“You have to know your audience,” the adviser said.
“We had to be aggressive”
Warnock’s campaign knew that race was bound to be a defining feature of the Senate runoffs. Warnock is the only Black candidate in the two simultaneous campaigns; and he’s the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr.
Some of Warnock’s sermons address race in raw terms that can be uncomfortable for white voters – especially those who have never attended a Black church. And those sermons have been a treasure trove of opposition research and attack ads for Loeffler and her Republican allies.
Since the race to the runoffs began, after candidates in both U.S. Senate races failed to earn more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3, Warnock has been attacked more than any other candidate in paid TV commercials in the other runoff race, according to data from the firm AdImpact.
Their data shows nearly 62,000 negative spots for Warnock compared to about 38,000 that bash Loeffler.
The anti-Warnock onslaught, and his reticence to fight back, concerns Democrats like Atlanta-based Rev. Darryl Winston, who penned an open letter, signed by more than 100 faith leaders, demanding that Loeffler stop attacking Warnock. Winston said Warnock wasn’t pushing back hard enough.
“That’s why we stepped up,” Winston said. “We had to be aggressive.”
But just before Christmas, after a former Klansman took a selfie with Loeffler at a campaign event, Warnock’s campaign slammed Loeffler in a campaign ad. Loeffler has denied knowing the man, but in his ad, Warnock said the Republican said the same thing back in September, when she appeared with the same man in another photo.
Loeffler’s campaign responded with her own spot accusing Warnock of anti-white “hate speech” in his sermons and supporting “massive taxpayer payments for racial reparations.” Warnock, however, said he supports “studying” reparations.
On Thursday, tensions escalated. A Fox News reporter asked Democrat Jon Ossoff, who’s running against Loeffler’s fellow Republican Sen. David Perdue, if the hits on Warnock hurt his own campaign.
“Kelly Loeffler has been campaigning with a Klansman,” Ossoff said.
That wasn’t the last word in what has been an increasingly contentious campaign. Loeffler responded by describing both Democratic candidates as socialists, a charge the two deny, and repeating a litany of attacks on Warnock’s associations, some of which he disputes.
Ossoff’s decision to escalate the discussion about race wasn’t just a case of defending a friend in the trenches, however. It was an example of how Black candidates often have to rely on white allies to aggressively attack white opponents over race.
“He said what Raphael couldn’t. We [Black candidates] have to be nimble. But you can’t respond head-on,” said Espy, the former Senate candidate from Mississippi. His campaign, he said, used white suburban women to criticize his opponent, Sen. Hyde-Smith, for once donning Confederate garb.
Espy said in an interview he understood why some Democrats want Warnock to be more forceful – and why some were disappointed he wasn’t aggressive during a November debate when Loeffler repeatedly tore into him. But he said Warnock smartly recognized the realities of race and the campaign trail.
“Warnock has already excited the Black vote for him, but he needed to make sure not to incite the white vote against him,” Espy said. “He needed to keep it on a higher plane.”
Pollster Matt Towery, a former Republican Georgia legislator and long-ago aide to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said early vote numbers bear out Espy’s claims about Black voters. African Americans are already turning out in big numbers, while Republicans are worried about relatively low turnout from white rural voters. About 30 percent of the state’s voters are Black, 52 percent are white and the balance are of Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Island or unknown racial origin.
Towery called Loeffler’s recent hard-hitting ad against Warnock “a gamble… This is a stumper for me. I haven’t seen anything like this where they’re basically saying the man doesn’t like whites. They’ve thrown down the gauntlet … to turn out their base of white voters.”
Other Republicans echoed this concern, arguing that with Georgia’s rapidly changing demographics, Republicans are taking a risk with the way they approach race.
“I do think we as Republicans have to be more careful about words like ‘radical’ and the imagery we’re using around them to make sure we’re not using racial overtones or undertones” said Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist and former campaign manager to Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Loeffler and her defenders say they’re not engaged in racial attacks but instead are highlighting the disconnect between Warnock the candidate, who downplays race, and Warnock the preacher, who focuses on it. To establish that narrative, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released an ad Wednesday that used police body camera footage of Warnock’s ex-wife talking to police during a domestic dispute with the pastor. In it, she describes Warnock as “a great actor.” (No one was arrested.)
In an interview with POLITICO on Thursday, Loeffler said her ads “aren’t criticisms. These are facts.”
“Georgians need to know who [Warnock] is,” she continued. “He’s running ads with puppies in them because he wants to distract from his own words.”
Then on Saturday, Loeffler in a campaign speech tried to link Warnock to spousal and child abuse and said it was not a coincidence that Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer had contributed to him — a statement that Warnock backers said was an example in trafficking in dangerous and inaccurate stereotypes.
But when asked about Loeffler’s attack ads on CNN, Warnock said, “I’m not concerned about Kelly Loeffler. She can call me whatever she wants…. I’m not going to be dragged down into the mud.”
“The great pretender”
Warnock does talk about race on the campaign trail, from discussing racial disparities in the pandemic to police brutality toward people of color. His ads have aimed to counter the narrative that he’s dangerous. The campaign cut several television spots with dogs, who belong to Warnock’s supporters, both to challenge the stereotype of Black men and to endear him to a broader swath of voters.
Vernon Jones, a conservative Black Democrat and former state representative from DeKalb County who supports Loeffler and Perdue, called Warnock “the great pretender. He pretends he’s going right. But he’s really going left.”
Jones dismissed complaints that Loeffler is engaging in racial politics. Anti-Black bias exists, he said, but it comes from liberals of all races denigrating African American conservatives.
After a summer of protests and heightened attention to the issues of race after a Minnesota cop killed George Floyd, Black candidates say they have to walk an extra-taut tightrope.
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), the youngest Black woman in Congress, won reelection by just over 5,000 votes in her majority-white district. Her campaign focused heavily on healthcare, something she cited in her first run as a neutral issue that would not alienate the voters she needed.
South Carolina’s Jamie Harrison struck a similar tone in his campaign, taking moderate stances on issues of policing that appealed to a broader swath of voters, while underlining the historical significance of his candidacy as a Black man running for Senate. He still lost against Sen. Lindsey Graham by 11 percentage points.
Even Barack Obama grappled with the issue of race on the campaign trail, especially in 2008, when an adviser said the campaign tried to avoid talking about it because he didn’t want to scare off white moderates and swing voters. Obama ended up making a historic speech about race after incendiary comments from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, became a campaign issue.
Twelve years later, and Warnock is also facing questions about his past associations with Wright. But while no one expects Warnock to give an Obama-style speech about race, Democrats say it’s time for him to discuss it.
“In this Black Lives Matter movement and post George Floyd, you need to talk about race,” said consultant Rosy Gonzalez, who led the independent expenditure group for Harrison in South Carolina, advised Underwood in Illinois and worked for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and 2018 Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Gonzalez said.
Still, she said, Black candidates have to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.