Last summer, Rev Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, presided over the funeral of John Lewis, the civil rights activist and longtime congressman, with three former US presidents in attendance.
Less than half a year later, Mr Warnock, 51, is hoping that he will make political history of his own by winning a closely fought special election to fill one of Georgia’s two vacant US Senate seats.
Opinion polls show the Democratic political novice, who has never held elected office, narrowly ahead of Kelly Loeffler, the former Intercontinental Exchange executive and Republican incumbent. Under arcane state rules, the special election will be decided in one of two run-offs to be held on Tuesday.
If Mr Warnock defeats Ms Loeffler and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff ousts Republican incumbent David Perdue, Democrats will take back the Senate, controlling both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. If either of them loses, Republicans will remain in control of the upper chamber — and threaten to stand in the way of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
Republicans entered the Senate races the presumed favourites, given a long history of party victories in Georgia. But the southern state is now seen as highly competitive, after Mr Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate in almost three decades to win there in November, defeating Donald Trump by a margin of just under 12,000 votes.
Mr Biden’s razor-thin victory has been attributed to moderate suburbanites who soured on the Trump presidency and black voters, who overwhelmingly favour Democrats and make up about a third of the state’s electorate.
A win for Mr Warnock on Tuesday would be historic. He would be the first black person to represent Georgia in the US Senate, and just the 11th black senator in US history. He would be only the third black person in the next Senate, alongside Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
As the fifth senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in the church’s 135-year history, Mr Warnock is a successor to Martin Luther King, Jr, who preached at the church with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr, until his assassination in 1968.
Becoming the church’s pastor in 2005 was a crowning achievement for Mr Warnock, who grew up in public housing in Savannah, Georgia, the child of two Pentecostal preachers. The 11th of 12 children, he attended Morehouse College, a historically black university for men in Atlanta, intent on following in King’s footsteps. He later earned two master’s degrees and a PhD from Union Theological Seminary, a Christian seminary affiliated with Columbia University in New York City.
Mr Warnock’s connection to King and Ebenezer Baptist Church gave him name recognition in Georgia that helped him break through in a crowded primary in which he faced nearly 20 candidates from both main parties, including Ms Loeffler, on November 3. He earned 33 per cent of the vote to Ms Loeffler’s 26 per cent. Under Georgia state rules, if no candidate earns more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off is required.
But Mr Warnock’s time in the pulpit has also proved a liability in recent weeks, with the Loeffler campaign using his old sermons to paint the Democrat as a “radical liberal”. Mr Warnock was among the more progressive candidates in the Democratic primary field, and has called for the expansion of public healthcare for low-income Americans, an end to mass incarceration and student loan forgiveness.
The Georgia Senate run-offs are among the most expensive legislative races in US history, with some $400m spent across the board on advertising campaigns. More negative ads, stemming from the Loeffler campaign, have aired against Mr Warnock than any other candidate.
Ms Loeffler has said Mr Warnock “celebrated Fidel Castro and welcomed him into his church”, in an apparent reference to a visit by the Cuban communist leader to a church in New York where Mr Warnock was a youth pastor in the 1990s. Her campaign later zeroed in on a sermon in which Mr Warnock said “nobody can serve God and the military”, in reference to a Bible verse Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters”.
Ms Loeffler also called Mr Warnock’s rhetoric “disgusting” and “offensive” in a tweet that included a clip of the pastor saying: “America needs to repent for its worship of whiteness.” The clip was part of a sermon from October 2016, in which Mr Warnock condemned racism and accused President Donald Trump of “poisoning” the national discussion.
Republicans contend the strategy will help persuade moderate voters in the suburbs to return to the Republicans. But Ms Loeffler’s critics say her attacks amount to racial dog-whistles in a campaign cycle underscored by the Black Lives Matter movement, and in a state where black voters could be the deciding factor in whether Democrats eke out a come-from-behind victory on Tuesday. Shortly before Christmas, dozens of black pastors said in an open letter that Ms Loeffler’s messaging was an attack not only Mr Warnock, but also on the African-American church.
Ms Loeffler, who last year attracted the ire of athletes on the Atlanta Dream, the professional women’s basketball team that she co-owns, when she publicly opposed BLM, said in a debate against Mr Warnock last month: “There is not a racist bone in my body.”
For their part, the Warnock campaign tried to push back on the attacks with humour. A recent television advertisement shows the Democrat walking a beagle down a leafy suburban street.
“She is trying to scare people by taking things I have said out of context from over 25 years of being a pastor,” Mr Warnock said, adding: “I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are,” as the camera zooms in on a plastic bag that he drops in the rubbish.