His election during the January 2021 runoffs helped flip the U.S. Senate to Democratic control. But today, he is considered the Senate’s most vulnerable member heading into the November midterms.
Georgia is a swing state, and while Democrats here scored much success in 2020 and early 2021, their prospects for 2022 are unclear. Nationally, Democrats are widely expected to lose seats in the House, and Republicans are bullish on their chances of also winning back control of the Senate.
And they think they have a good shot at knocking off Warnock, with former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker, who entered the race at former President Donald Trump’s urging, as the likely Republican nominee.
Democrats know they need strong turnout in November — particularly from young voters, infrequent voters and Black voters — for Warnock to succeed again. But they also want to prevent Walker, from siphoning off any of the support Warnock amassed last year.
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said he sees signs Walker is trying to chip away at centrist voters.
“He doesn’t have to worry about getting the Trump vote or the conservative vote; he’s got that locked up,” Swint said. “And so, he’s trying to appeal to moderates as well, talking about representing everyone and focusing on education. I think Warnock and Walker are both trying to appeal to the moderates as much as they can, which is smart.”
Warnock carried his message to DeKalb County, a Democratic stronghold, for his first in-person town hall meeting earlier this month. Once the room reached its capacity of 150, over a dozen others — nearly all of them Warnock supporters — had to be turned away.
His remarks and answers to a dozen questions from audience members selected at random often came back to the theme of working to help families and businesses as the coronavirus pandemic endures.
He spoke about the coronavirus relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, that passed without Republicans’ support and made possible only after he and fellow Georgian Jon Ossoff were elected. That gave Democrats a 50-vote majority in the Senate.
“We put shots in people’s arms; we put resources in people’s bank accounts,” Warnock told the crowd. “We supported small businesses, we provided (the Paycheck Protection Plan) for small businesses, we helped our municipalities to retrofit and to make it through the pandemic: $11 billion of support to small businesses in Georgia alone.”
In this way, Warnock has something his challengers don’t: a record of backing legislation in Washington that could bring aid to voters back home.
And while he has not forgotten about his liberal base, vowing to continue pushing to reduce student debt, work on criminal justice and pass federal voting legislation, Warnock’s primary message most recently has been focused on his efforts to save Georgians money.
A spokeswoman for the Republican Party said that same record will help bring him down. The party isn’t choosing sides during the primary featuring a handful of GOP candidates, but Savannah Viar said any of them will be positioned as a better option than Warnock.
The GOP strategy includes tying the incumbent to President Joe Biden, whose own approval rating has been sagging as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including higher prices, persist.
“I don’t think when you’re looking at a country with record-high inflation and poor job growth that saying that you’ve been in Washington trying to fix the problem but haven’t been successful with it is a winning message at all,” Viar said. “I think the outsider message and having experience in the business world or anything outside of politics is actually more helpful when you’re dealing with the type of landscape that the American people and Georgians are facing every single day.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released in January showed Biden underwater with Georgia voters. Of the 872 respondents, only 34% said they approved of how Biden is doing his job, compared with 61% who disapproved.
Warnock fared better in the same poll: 44% said they approved of his performance, compared with 35% who disapproved.
When asked whether voters would select Warnock or Walker if the election were today, the two candidates were in a statistical tie. The survey had 47% backing Walker, compared with 44% for Warnock. That fell within the poll’s 3.3-point margin of error.
Warnock fared better against another Republican in the race, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.
Voters who identified as independents in the poll were much more likely to support Warnock over either GOP candidate.
He also has a huge fundraising advantage right now. Warnock raised $9.8 million in the final three months of 2021, ending the year with about $23 million in the bank. Walker raised $5.4 million and has about $5 million in cash on hand to start 2022.
Sylvia Hayes gasped when her name was called at Warnock’s recent town hall, making her the first person selected to ask him a question. Hayes volunteered for his campaign last year and attended the open meeting to better learn what he has done in the year since, especially since she hosts a local talk show that often focuses on politics.
“I was one of his foot soldiers trying to get him in office so we can get some things changed, and we need things to change in this community and in this culture, period,” she said. “So I’m just checking him out to see what he is all about.”
Outside the venue, young men representing a pro-Walker political committee held signs with the slogan “Warnock isn’t working.” Instead, the audience laughed at Warnock’s jokes and clapped politely.
Hayes did not go into the meeting thinking her senator would lose her support, but she said she left with a better understanding of what he has done with his first year.
“I feel more knowledgeable of the things that he’s doing,” she said, “and what’s going on to make for a better Georgia.”