ATLANTA (Reuters) – The deep-voiced Baptist pastor who now holds the pulpit where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. preached made history in his uphill battle to unseat a sitting Republican to become the first Black U.S. Senator from Georgia.
The son of a sharecropper, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who never held public office before, defeated Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who was appointed to the seat by Governor Brian Kemp.
With 98 percent of the vote reported, Warnock tallied 50.6 percent of the vote in a narrow win over Loeffler’s 49.4 percent.
His win puts the party’s Senate majority within reach, as votes are still being tallied in a companion runoff election for Senate between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue.
“The four most powerful words in a democracy are ‘The people have spoken,'” Warnock said Wednesday morning to the media.
Georgia, where around a third of the population is Black, voted Democrat at November’s presidential election for the first time since 1992 and is now close to delivering the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
Warnock’s win comes on the back of years of voter registration efforts, including attempts to engage “New Georgia” residents – immigrants and liberal transplants from other states who flocked to jobs in Atlanta.
In a speech to his supporters early Wednesday, Warnock, the lead pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and son of two Pentecostal preachers in Savannah, honored his mother Verlene Warnock, 82, who spent her summers on a south Georgia farm picking cotton and tobacco in her youth.
“God bless her and God Bless America,” he wrote on Twitter along with a photo of her wearing an “I’m a Georgia Voter,” sticker.
“The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States Senator,” Warnock, the youngest of 12, said in a livestreamed video address to his supporters.
“So I come to you as a man who knows that the improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America, could only happen here,” he said.
Warnock, 51, has for the last 15 years led the church where King crusaded for civil rights. His win over Loeffler, 49, the former chief executive of Bakkt, a cryptocurrency trading platform, was considered a long shot just weeks ago.[L1N2HR2IE]
Loeffler, an ardent Trump supporter, tacked to the right in a divisive campaign. In one ad, Loeffler boasted she was more conservative than Attila the Hun, and had a “100 percent Trump voting record.” She has called the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests police violence and racial injustice, a “Marxist”group. She accuses Warnock of being a radical.
Warnock, in contrast, introduced a humorous online ad campaign featuring his puppy, and a warning that he’s is likely to face a surge in attack ads. One commercial about “smear ads” ends with him throwing a plastic bag of dog feces into the trash.
He told his supporter Wednesday, “That I am serving in the United State Senate in a few days pushes against the grain of so many expectations but this is America and I want some young person who’s watching this to know anything’s possible.”
(This story corrects second paragraph to say Loeffler was appointed by Governor Brian Kemp, not President Trump)
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alistair Bell)