By Rich McKay and Susan Cornwell
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The pastor who now holds the pulpit where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once preached was thrust into the national spotlight this week when Georgia officials ruled his U.S. Senate campaign would be decided by a January runoff.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Black Democrat, faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who was appointed to the seat in the conservative-leaning state after its former occupant retired.
The Jan. 5 contest is certain to attract a great amount of money and media interest as it has the potential, along with another Senate race in the state that may also go to a runoff, of helping determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate next year.
A deep-voiced Baptist preacher who has never held political office, Warnock, 51, said that changing demographics give him a chance. He came out on top of Tuesday's 21-candidate election with 32.7% of the vote, although Loeffler and her nearest Republican rival, Representative Doug Collins, had a combined 46.1%.
"No one in Georgia believes that this is a red state any longer. Even the other side does not believe this is a red state, which is why they are engaged in voter suppression," Warnock, who for 14 years has been the senior pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, said in a recent campaign speech.
Georgia election rules require a runoff in races where either candidate fails to secure more than 50% of the vote, which could also send another race, a closer two-candidate contest between Republican Senator David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff to a runoff the same day.
Warnock faces several hurdles, including his opponent's deep pockets and the fact that Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator since Max Cleland in 1996.
Loeffler has given $23 million to her own campaign so far, a large chunk of the $28.2 million she raised, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Warnock raised $22 million for his Senate campaign by mid-October. The pace is not expected to slacken.
"We'll absolutely see a flood of spending from grassroots donors as well as major interest groups from all over the country," said Abigail Collazo, who served as a spokeswoman for Stacey Abrams' 2018 run for the Georgia governorship, which the Black Democrat narrowly lost
There could hardly be a greater political contrast than that between Warnock and Loeffler, who has been running to the right in order to defeat Collins.
In a campaign 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, for his part, has introduced a humorous online ad in which he warns that he is likely to face a surge in attack ads.
Loeffler, 49, the former chief executive of Bakkt, a cryptocurrency trading platform, also received the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the representative-elect for Georgia's 14th Congressional District. Greene has promoted the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
Seth Weathers, a Republican strategist who directed President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign in Georgia, said Loeffler's tack to the right should not hurt her with voters.
"At this point, she’s just got to maintain the base and continue pushing the conservative message," Weathers said.
Warnock was the 11th of 12 children born to Pentecostal ministers growing up in a public housing project in Savannah, Georgia, and was the first to go to college.
His preaching lately has been taking place over Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Warnock did open the church doors in the summer, however, for the funeral of his friend, Representative John Lewis, a civil rights champion.
His benediction included a not-so-veiled reference to Trump: "In a moment when there are some in high office who are much better at division than vision, who cannot lead us so they seek to divide us, in a moment when there is so much political cynicism and narcissism that masquerades as patriotism, here lies a true American patriot."
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)