Republicans are framing the two Georgia Senate runoff races as the firewall holding back a left-wing takeover of the federal government, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock is inadvertently providing them with plenty of help.
Since coasting to a first-place finish in the Nov. 3 nonpartisan special election primary, Mr. Warnock has been thrown on the defensive by a relentless barrage of own past statements, many from the pulpit, attacking Israel, police, “worship of whiteness” and the military.
An InsiderAdvantage/Fox5 poll released Tuesday showed the Democrat deadlocked with Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, but some analysts expect that to change, especially with the release Tuesday of a 2011 sermon in which Mr. Warnock said that “nobody can serve God and the military.”
“Social media has blown up really since yesterday with his comments attacking the military and veterans,” said Phil Kent, CEO of InsiderAdvantage, an Atlanta political communications firm. “Georgia has a lot of military bases and veterans and veterans’ families, let alone active military. I think it’s going to hurt him, no question about that.”
The video clip posted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee prompted at least two Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — to call for Mr. Warnock to withdraw from the race. Ms. Blackburn labeled his remarks “disqualifying.”
Ms. Loeffler referenced the uproar Wednesday in a Fox News interview, calling her opponent “the most radically liberal candidate for the Senate in the country. Don’t take my word for it; it’s in his own words.”
In the sermon, Mr. Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, says: “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day whom you will serve.”
Warnock communications director Terrence Clark said the sermon was “based on a biblical verse that reads ‘No man can serve two masters. … Ye cannot serve God and mammon,’ a biblical term for wealth.”
Coming to Mr. Warnock’s defense was Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, who touched off a theological skirmish online after looking up the relevant New Testament verse.
“Hey I just googled it and it appears to be from Matthew 6:24,” tweeted Mr. Schatz. “If you want to attack the Reverend on his policy views, fine, but this is a low blow.”
Mr. Schatz’s interpretation was promptly challenged by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, who tweets Bible verses on a near-daily basis and pointed out that the passage warns about becoming slaves to “Mammon,” but says nothing about the military.
“So Warnock believes the U.S. military is ‘Mammon’ & military service is incompatible with being a Christian?” Mr. Rubio tweeted.
The Warnock campaign mocked the spate of criticism with an ad last week showing Mr. Warnock eating pizza as the narrator intones, “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife. Raphael Warnock once stepped on a crack in the sidewalks.”
Certainly the contentious comments come in sharp contrast with Mr. Warnock’s good-humored, genial demeanor on the campaign trail.
“I cannot allow myself to be distracted by Kelly Loeffler,” he told CNN in a recent interview. “I’m the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr. I have spent my whole career and ministry pushing hard against racism and bigotry and xenophobia in all of its forms.”
Coming back to haunt him
Still, this was hardly how Mr. Warnock anticipated launching his runoff campaign after taking 32% of the vote in the Nov. 3 special election, placing well ahead of Ms. Loeffler, who won 26% after spending the primary fending off a challenge from Rep. Doug Collins, who came in third with 20%.
The water-torture drip of videos began shortly thereafter with clips of Mr. Warnock blasting Israel, such as a 2018 sermon in which said soldiers “shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey,” which drew the attention of the Israeli media.
He signed a letter comparing Israeli control of the West Bank to “previous oppressive regimes” such as “apartheid South Africa.” He criticized the “thug mentality” of some police. He praised the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has been accused of anti-Semitism.
The Chicago preacher is known for his 2003 “God Damn America” sermon, which Mr. Warnock described in 2014 as “a very fine sermon.”
“Very fine? The sermon in question was chock-full of anti-American rhetoric and conspiracy theories,” the conservative magazine National Review said in a Wednesday staff editorial.
In an October 2016 sermon at Emory University, Mr. Warnock called on America to “repent for its worship of whiteness,” referring to Donald Trump’s candidacy.
On Wednesday, the Daily Caller posted a 2016 Howard University speech in which Mr. Warnock criticized white evangelicals and white Catholics for supporting Mr. Trump. He said it demonstrated the “moral bankruptcy of the American church.”
Mr. Warnock reacted to the criticism over his anti-Israel comments by dramatically reframing his position. Last week, he issued a statement to the Jewish Insider saying that “you can count on me to stand with the Jewish community and Israel in the U.S. Senate.”
He has also simply avoided some questions. He sidestepped CNN host Jake Tapper’s question Sunday about whether he attended a Fidel Castro speech in 1995 at the church where he worked, and condemned anti-Semitism but not Mr. Wright in an MSNBC “Morning Joe” interview.
The Warnock campaign has also sought to pivot whenever possible to health care, his strong suit, while blasting Ms. Loeffler for being endorsed by Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican whom Mr. Warnock described as “a candidate who trafficks in the QAnon conspiracy theory with all of its racist overtones.”
Even so, Mr. Kent said, local media pressure is building for Mr. Warnock to address directly some of his comments, particularly the military remark.
“He’s a very gifted public speaker, and he’s done some very good ads,” Mr. Kent said, “but now I think his negatives are going to be driven upward.”
The comments have also spilled into the other Georgia Senate race between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Republicans are running ads accusing both Democrats of being too radical for Georgia.
“I would argue that if you can get an honest count in Georgia, the Republicans will win because Warnock is way too radical and Ossoff is way too artificial,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Democrats must win both Georgia races in the Jan. 5 runoff election to take control of the Senate, while Republicans need to capture just one seat.