“I believe, all the way in my gut, that if Rev. Raphael Warnock should decide to run, he could bring the change we are looking for.”
Those are the words of Dubose Porter, the head of Georgia’s Democratic Party.
During a recent Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock told the congregation he’s considering a run for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m gonna go away for a few days in a quiet prayer retreat,” he said, “And then I’m going to come back and talk, and hear you, and then we’ll go together.”
Warnock will return from his sabbatical soon.
He’s far from the favorite to win the Senate seat up for grabs in the 2016 election, but Georgia Democrats are hopeful. They think he can revive the party.
The result of the 2014 Senate race was disappointing to Georgia's Democrats. And that might be an understatement.
Polls showed the race was a toss-up, but in the end it wasn't close. Republican David Perdue beat Democrat Michelle Nunn by about 7 percent.
Now, Rev. Warnock makes Democrats hopeful Georgia could really become a toss-up state.
“His candidacy will be very exciting for us,” says Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D- Columbus).
But she says it will be hard for Warnock to beat the incumbent, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who may be Georgia’s favorite working politician.
For the last 22 years, Isakson has attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration at Warnock's Ebenezer Baptist Church. The senator says he wouldn't miss it; he’ll be back next year.
“I'm doing everything I can to raise the money necessary to take the fight to whomever comes," Isakson says. "I can't worry about who it is. I've got to worry about being prepared, and that's what I'm trying to do.”
And with millions in the bank already, he's got a good start. Democrat Michael Thurmond took on Isakson six years ago, and he has this advice for Warnock.
“Get as much cash as you can, but this time is a bit different because it is a presidential election year,” he says.
And here's where a sort of chicken or the egg scenario pops-up. To win, Warnock will need support from the Democratic presidential candidate. How does he get that support? He makes the Senate race competitive, says Thurmond.
“A viable Democratic candidate, running in a competitive race would increase the likelihood that Georgia could become a battleground state.”
A Bridge To African-American Votes
But, Warnock has something all Democratic presidential candidates want: the ear of African-American voters. He's the pastor of what may be the most important African-American church in U.S. history. And as a bonus, he's worked with black activists.
Just ask Yoehzer Ben Yeeftahk who is with the Atlanta group It's Bigger Than You, which is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
He anticipates Warnock's continued support for their movement.
“Up until now, Pastor Warnock has been behind us, and with us,” and Ben Yeeftahk expects Warnock will continue to listen. “Most of the young people at this time are taking an extremely low-compromise or no-compromise position. And there have been very few people who've wanted to seriously get down to work, and a lot of people who want to cater to us, and have us show up at their rallies, and be excited, and take pictures with us.”
Democratic presidential candidates have struggled to connect with black activists, and they may come calling in the hope Warnock can be a bridge.
He may also force Sen. Isakson to address issues important to the black community, like police brutality, says Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.
“We imagine that we see these two gentleman having to debate one another,” he says. “One would not be able to just sort of poo-poo issues that the other candidate brings up.”
Owens says, even if Warnock loses the race, the party is really looking for someone who will move Georgia closer to toss-up status.
“The state Democratic party clearly has to identify candidates who are not only judged to be smart and competent and all that sort of stuff, but who have some degree of charisma and excitement about them,” Owens says.
Warnock could be the guy. He hasn't even declared he's running yet, and the election is more than a year away, but he already has the Democratic party buzzing.