In December, during a plane ride home for the holidays, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock received two memorable, written requests from the young Black couple sitting in the seats in front of him.

The first was for an autograph for the couple’s toddler-age son. The second was for Warnock to find a way to cancel student loans. The child’s mother told the senator that she borrowed $35,000 for her undergraduate degree more than a decade ago.

After paying $20,000, she still owes $30,000.

“She said, ‘I feel like I’m in a government-sponsored debt trap,’” Warnock recalled during an interview with Capital B Atlanta in June.

The conversation was one that motivated Warnock, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign against GOP nominee Herschel Walker, to persuade President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt. Biden is still deciding on the policy proposal. 

“This will help all kinds of voters — Black, white, red, yellow, brown — but it is particularly felt among Black people,” Warnock said. “It would be a way to narrow the racial wealth gap. It would spur homeownership, entrepreneurship. And I believe that’s good for everybody.”

It’s been about 18 months since Georgia voters made Warnock the first Black person ever to represent their state in the U.S. Senate. The civil rights champion seems well aware of the added challenge he and other Democrats face convincing Black voters to turnout in November the way they did in 2020, when the party won its first two Georgia U.S. Senate seats in decades.

Student loan cancellation is one of several Democratic policy proposals backed by Warnock that he says would have a greater positive impact on Black households if enacted. Others include suspending the federal gas tax to lower fuel prices, which are hitting Black families harder than most; limiting the price of prescription drugs; and capping the cost of insulin at $35 per month in a state where more than 12% of the population suffers from diabetes.

The chronic disease is nearly twice as prevalent among Black people in Georgia, according to the state Department of Community Health.

“Right now I’m focused on the real pressure that hardworking families are feeling in the wake of this global inflation,” Warnock said. “I’m running into people everyday who are having to make a choice between paying for groceries and paying for prescription drugs. That should not be the case. And I’m going to keep fighting for them.”

Political observers have suggested negative views of the president would have a dampening effect on Democrats running in midterm races across the country this year. There are also questions about allegations Warnock spent campaign money on a lawsuit.

Warnock opened up a 10-point lead over Walker in a Quinnipiac poll conducted in late June. Most polls earlier this year had the candidates in a dead heat. The same Quinnipiac poll found 88% of Black Georgia voters said they would vote for Warnock over Walker if the election were held today. 

South Fulton resident Lashay Crawford was in attendance during the Juneteenth holiday weekend when Warnock participated in a parade and spoke in East Point.

Crawford, a retired teacher and mother of 10, said she likes Biden, but suggested it’s how Warnock communicates with his supporters that resonates.

“​​I think Warnock is approachable, and at the end of the day he speaks with authority, and people are drawn to that,” she said. “You have to speak with authority or you’re losing your people.”

The Rev. Andre Patterson of Ben Hill United Methodist Church also attended the event in East Point. Patterson said that in his view, the incumbent senator has a better feel for what Black voters need than his opponent.

“I think Senator Warnock’s finger is on the pulse,” Patterson said. “We’re talking about somebody who has grassroots not only as a senator, but as a reverend, a pastor. He’s been with the people for a long time, being the senior pastor for Ebenezer Baptist Church.”

The Trump-backed Walker has maintained strong support among his predominantly white GOP base, but so far he’s struggled to make gains with Black voters. Just 10% of Black Georgians surveyed by Quinnipiac said they would support Walker over Warnock. 

When asked about Walker and his own poll numbers, Warnock took the high road.

“This is going to be a long campaign,” he said. “There will be a number of polls and plenty of pundits talking about those polls. I’m going to stay focused on working hard for the people of Georgia.”

This story has been updated.

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.