A BAPTIST pastor, the Revd Raphael Warnock, has won a seat in the United States Senate in critical election run-offs. His victory, and that of his fellow Democrat, Jon Ossoff, means that the Democratic Party now controls the Senate, a crucial development before the start of President Biden’s taking office later this month.
The news emerged during a day of extraordinary political significance in the US, as the outgoing President Trump encouraged thousands of his supporters to march on the Capitol to disrupt the ratification of Mr Biden’s election victory. Four protesters died, one shot by police, and 14 police officers were injured as protesters stormed into the building.
The action was condemned by many Republicans, and there has been talk of removing President Trump from office before his term ends officially on 20 January. None the less, half the Republicans subsequently voted against ratification. They were in a clear minority, however, and the election result was confirmed.
Mr Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, where Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, used to preach, was declared the winner in the state of Georgia early on Wednesday. Although official confirmation is still to come, Mr Warnock defeated Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Trump loyalist, by a projected 50.7 per cent to 49.3 per cent, according to Associated Press reports.
Jon Ossoff’s victory was even closer, defeating Senator David Perdue by a reported 50.28 per cent to 49.72 per cent.
Winning both seats gives President-Elect Joe Biden control of the Senate, and thus the ability to push through his legislative agenda. The Georgia election was a re-run, owing to a rule in the state that the victor must gain half the vote, which no candidate achieved in November.
Mr Warnock is the first Black Democrat to win a Senate seat for Georgia, and only the 11th Black senator in US history. Mr Ossoff becomes Georgia’s first Jewish senator. It marks a remarkable turnaround in what was once a solidly Republican, and former Confederate, state.
In a speech on Tuesday night, shortly before the election was called, Mr Warnock referred to his mother’s past as a cotton-picker: “The other day — because this is America — 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.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church was also a spiritual home for the civil-rights activist and long-serving Georgia Congressman John Lewis, whose funeral was held there last year, as was the funeral of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot by police last year in a parking lot in Atlanta.
Dr Martin Luther King was co-pastor at the church from 1960 until his assassination in 1968, and his father served as pastor there before him.
Mr Warnock grew up in a housing project in Georgia, the 11th of 12 children, and the son of two pastors. He gave his first sermon at the age of 11 and studied at Morehouse College, where King had studied before him.
He has used the pulpit to be outspoken on human rights and to challenge Black churches to be more welcoming of gay people.
In a recent campaign video, he said: “Somebody asked why a pastor thinks he should serve in the Senate. Well, I committed my whole life to service and helping people realise their highest potential. I’ve always thought my impact doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s actually where it starts.”