Fight Over Warnock’s Senate Record Comes Down to Electric Vehicles

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The groundbreaking ceremony in October for the Hyundai electric vehicle plant under construction outside Savannah should have been a moment for bipartisan bonhomie, with the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, and a Democratic senator, Raphael Warnock, both shoveling dirt to begin the largest economic development project in the state’s history.

Instead, in this hyperpartisan moment in a bright-purple state, that triumph has been tarnished by a multipronged and acrimonious debate. Should state economic incentives or federal climate legislation get the credit? Did federal electric-vehicle tax breaks help or hurt the project? Above all, how should the brief Senate record of Mr. Warnock play in voters’ calculations ahead of his runoff election on Tuesday against Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee?

Mr. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has only two short years of experience in elective office. Democrats say he has much to show for it: not a lot of flash, they concede, but the hard work and demonstrated skill of a legislative professional.

His accomplishments are mainly modest but meaningful: science funding for historically Black colleges and universities, new access to grants for Georgia transit authorities, funding to replace aging highway-rail intersections, and new programs to improve maternal health care.

His biggest achievement may have been his relentless push for a $15-a-month out-of-pocket cap on insulin costs, which survived for Medicare recipients in the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden in August, but was blocked by Republicans for those with private health insurance.

There is no doubt that where Mr. Warnock swung hardest, he missed: He dearly wanted to expand health insurance access for the working poor in Georgia and other Republican-led states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Tax credits for low-income workers to buy private policies made it through the House under Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better bill but died in the Senate.

Mr. Warnock was also the torch bearer for voting rights legislation that fell to a filibuster in the Senate. Promoted by Democratic leaders as the passionate heir to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who once preached from the same Ebenezer pulpit, Mr. Warnock was given ample floor time to make his case in the loftiest of terms, and his vulnerable position in the 2022 election was supposed to add urgency to his appeals.

But he could not persuade two Democratic colleagues, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to reshape filibuster rules to let expanded access to the polls pass with a simple majority.

One of Mr. Warnock’s earliest campaign ads this year featured him allowing: “A magician? I’m not. So in just a year in the Senate, did I think I could fix Washington? Of course not.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has put it differently in his daily floor speeches in the run-up to the runoff: “Two years of one-party Democrat control in Washington have been a disaster for working families in Georgia,” he said Monday.

Mr. Warnock’s opponent, Mr. Walker, has no record in elective office or government service, and beyond his Heisman Trophy, his national championship season at the University of Georgia, and his lengthy professional football career, his business and philanthropic record is spotty, marked by exaggerations and falsehoods.

In Georgia, the fight over Mr. Warnock’s achievements might be best captured at the site of the Hyundai plant, which, by 2025, should employ as many as 8,100 Georgians directly and another 1,000 at ancillary suppliers.

Mr. Warnock got a shovel at the groundbreaking, but not a speaking slot. And though he could claim success, his political opponents are loath to give him any credit for the project, which they say was secured by state officials in spite of, not because of, Washington.

That seems excessive. The Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act included large incentives for the production and purchases of electric vehicles and their components to combat climate change. The bipartisan infrastructure law, which Mr. Warnock also supported, devotes billions of dollars, including nearly $20 million for Georgia, for charging stations to make electric vehicles more practical.

(Mr. Warnock was not just another vote on climate: One of his first bills, the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021, showed an early commitment to the issue, in contrast to Republicans, who have blocked action on global warming for decades.)

This year’s far-reaching legislation on semiconductor manufacturing and science, too, drew early support from Mr. Warnock, after a Hyundai subsidiary, Kia, had to stop work at its High Point, Ga., plant when it ran out of foreign-made semiconductors. About $2 billion of the new law’s $52 billion in manufacturing incentives will be set aside to help existing plants like Kia’s avoid future supply-chain bottlenecks.

“From securing strong federal funding to boost U.S. microchip manufacturing to championing investments in expanding E.V. charging infrastructure in Georgia, Reverend Warnock has a proven track record of working alongside Georgia automakers,” said Michael J. Brewer, a campaign spokesman.

But it is also true that Korean officials openly complained at October’s groundbreaking about the details of the tax incentives that Mr. Warnock had ultimately voted for in the Inflation Reduction Act. Those provide credits of as much as $7,500 to consumers who buy electric cars and trucks made in North America, but not vehicles imported from Asia.

Hyundai officials had announced construction of the plant in May, well before the Inflation Reduction Act came together, during a visit by Mr. Biden to South Korea, signaling that the company shared the president’s climate goal that half of all cars sold by 2030 would be electric. More than a year and a half ago, Hyundai officials were at the White House to get assurances on electric-vehicle regulations in the works. Mr. Warnock’s team has pressed Hyundai’s case.

But the choice of the Savannah site was driven by tax incentives and other deals offered by Governor Kemp, Hyundai officials said. And the final “Buy America” requirement was not a factor in Hyundai’s committing to a plant on American soil. In fact, it was a sore spot.

“Korean companies are now at risk of being disadvantaged by the EV credits of this act,” Cho Tae-yong, the Korean ambassador to the United States, said at the groundbreaking.

Cody Hall, an adviser to Mr. Kemp, pointed to complaints from the Korean government and the chairman of Hyundai to argue that in an evenly divided Senate, Mr. Warnock could have forced a broadening of the consumer tax credit to include imported vehicles, at least until new domestic plants like Hyundai’s, in Bryan County, could be built.

“When he had leverage, and when he could have forced key changes to benefit a Georgia company, he chose not to,” Mr. Hall said. “But he came down for the photo op anyway.”

Any hit to Hyundai’s profitability puts its Georgia investment at risk, Mr. Hall argued. “Them saying this bill was problematic for their bottom line raises the question of whether Warnock should have used his leverage to level the playing field,” he said.

It is more complicated than that.

In consultation with Hyundai, Mr. Warnock did press for a broader consumer incentive. But the issue became “take it or leave it” for Mr. Manchin, who was just as happy to have no electric-vehicle consumer credit in the final Inflation Reduction Act. Congressional Republicans had actually made even the domestic-only consumer credit a point of attack, saying Democrats were using taxpayer dollars to give their elitist constituents luxury cars as working Americans struggled.

Regardless, Hyundai will have access to plenty of other federal incentives while the Georgia plant is under construction. The $7,500 tax credit extends to used and commercial vehicles with far fewer restrictions on where the cars are made, how much they cost and where their components come from. The provision for commercial vehicles, for example, allows dealers to reap the tax credit when they buy imported electric vehicles to lease to consumers.

The new law also includes $10 billion in manufacturing tax credits for the building of new plants or the refurbishing of existing plants to make electric vehicles, plus another $30 billion in tax credits for batteries and battery components, all of which will help Hyundai.

“It’s just an implausible assertion that the senator doesn’t get credit for one of the top priorities that he’s been driving in Washington, boosting U.S. clean energy and autos manufacturing,” Ali A. Zaidi, the White House climate adviser, said in an interview Thursday night.

Other companies in Georgia are already benefiting: SK Battery America has announced plans to hire 3,000 workers by the end of next year for its E.V. battery plant in Commerce, Ga., northeast of Atlanta, to keep up with demand. On Thursday, Mr. Warnock announced that a Belgian company, Solvay Specialty Polymers, would build a new electric-vehicle battery component factory in Augusta, Ga.

And in the northwest Georgia district of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who called the Inflation Reduction Act an “energy disaster,” Qcells, a solar panel manufacturer, said it was adding $171 million and 500 additional jobs to its Dalton plant.

“We will always look at the history of our industry in two eras,” before the Inflation Reduction Act and after, Scott Moskowitz, the head of market strategy and public affairs for Qcells North America, wrote on the company’s website.

But with many Republicans still downplaying or denying climate change, and much of the party denouncing any climate legislation as the “Green New Deal,” it is not clear whether any of this will help Mr. Warnock on Tuesday. Mr. Walker has mocked his opponent’s embrace of climate legislation as folly, with a much-quoted riff on the United States cleaning its air, only to have China send its “bad air” America’s way.

Other Warnock achievements are similarly subject to debate.

In early 2021, Mr. Warnock pushed for and secured billions of dollars for Black farmers in the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, only to see it abandoned under legal threat from white farmers claiming discrimination.

The senator was also one of the most vocal proponents of forgiving student debt, and when Mr. Biden finally announced his loan-forgiveness action, Mr. Warnock was one of the few lawmakers to claim credit, especially for the added amnesty for recipients of Pell Grants. But the president’s executive action has taken bipartisan heat and is now on court-ordered hold, pending a review announced Thursday by the Supreme Court. Mr. Warnock has not made it central to his re-election campaign.

All of that has some of Mr. Warnock’s Democratic colleagues looking forward, not backward. “It is not what he has done,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, “but what he can do in the future.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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