Report: GA Agriculture Commish eyeing challenge to Warnock

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (R) is reportedly considering a challenge to Sen. Raphael Warnock (D)

The Republican field to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in 2022 has remained largely frozen since the Atlanta pastor defeated GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election earlier this year. But that could soon change.

Republican Gary Black, who is currently serving his third term as Georgia’s top farmer, is reportedly mulling a challenge to the freshman Senator. As Agriculture Commissioner, he is the head of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which oversees the largest industry in the state of Georgia. Black also maintains oversight in other areas, such as pet breeding, gas stations and grocery stores.

A cattle farm owner from the Northeast Georgia town of Commerce, the 67-year-old Black is a graduate of the University of Georgia. His career in the agriculture industry goes all the way back to his time at UGA, when he worked as an intern on the Senate Agriculture Committee. He was first elected Agriculture Commissioner in 2010. He succeeded Democrat Tommy Irvin, who served in the office for over four decades.

Black as Agriculture Commissioner

Among his most recent accomplishments since taking office: securing federal disaster relief for Georgia farmers who were devastated by the wrath of Hurricane Michael in October 2018. The hurricane, which reached Georgia as a Category 2 storm, wiped out billions of dollars in revenue. Farmers lost land, crops, wood, supplies and even animals. Pecan farmers were hit especially hard, losing $560 million.

Black, with the help of Gov. Brian Kemp, secured nearly $350 million in federal relief for Georgia farmers who were impacted by the storm. “We flew together, we consoled families together, we gasped together, and we prayed together,” Black said of his partnership with Kemp in the aftermath of the storm. “Hallelujah, today we rejoice together,” he finished.

Shortly after farmers were granted disaster relief, though, another disaster devastated the state’s agriculture industry: the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, a study from the University of Georgia found that 82% of Georgia farmers saw a decline in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic.

“862 Georgia farmers said they were experiencing weekly sales down by an average of $8,500 a week. The average annual farm income of respondents was $184,808 and farm acreage was 563,” according to the Valdosta Daily Times. Shortly after the pandemic began, Black said in an interview that Georgia’s farmers are resilient and that the pandemic shouldn’t delay the rollout of hurricane relief.

Black’s electoral history

If Black were to run, he’d have a pretty decent electoral track record to tout. He has won three consecutive statewide elections in Georgia, and was the best-performing Republican on the statewide ballot in the 2018 elections.

As you can see above, he has also performed well with African-American voters for a Republican in a southern state. In 2018, he managed to carry the Southwestern region of the state, where a bulk of the state’s rural African-American voters live. Warnock won the region by a narrow but comfortable margin in the January runoff election.

That’s not to say that Black would face challenges against if he entered the race. For starters, Warnock is a talented fundraiser and has amassed a hefty campaign warchest since his upset victory. And the state Agriculture Commissioner is not a very visible elected official, so he would have to spend a decent amount of money introducing himself to voters who may not know who he is.

Nevertheless, he’d be the first major challenger in a race that has so far drawn few well-known candidates. Republican operatives, who see Warnock’s seat as a must-win if they want to retake control of the Senate, have privately expressed frustration and confusion over the lack of top-tier candidates. Two little-known military veterans have already entered the race, but they would both likely lack the necessary financial resources and the name recognition in order to compete with someone like Black.

Who would run to replace Black?

In terms of who might run to replace Black as Agriculture Commissioner if he runs for Senate, State Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), a farmer himself who once served as the chairman of Black’s campaign committee, could run to succeed his former boss. At 35, Harper is one of the youngest members of the Georgia Senate. On the Democratic side, there is only one candidate so far: Nakita Hemingway, who narrowly lost a State House race in Gwinnett County last year.