Candidates vying for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat from Georgia squared off for the first time in a debate Monday that touched on the coronavirus response, criminal justice reforms and concerns that not all challengers are getting a fair shake in the crowded free-for-all race.
Sixteen candidates including Loeffler took the stage in two separate debates hosted back-to-back by the Atlanta Press Club, marking a split format that several candidates said did not give them a real shot at taking on the incumbent senator.
Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman and Republican who was appointed to replace retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in January, continued her war of words with GOP rival U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in the marquee debate.
Their clash surfaced many of the talking points they have employed in the campaign for months heading toward next month’s election, in which both Republicans have sought to cast their opponent as less conservative and more aligned with left-leaning causes and policies.
The two Republicans also stepped up attacks during the debate against the race’s Democratic frontrunner, Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, who is poised for a runoff in January against either Loeffler or Collins.
And candidates from a range of parties pecked at the three leading candidates during both debates, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties and local media outlets, which they claimed have shut them out of the political process by devoting less press coverage to their candidacies.
The special election, which by law must host all candidates on the same ballot to fill the remaining two years of Isakson’s Senate term, is set for Nov. 3. If none of the roughly 20 candidates in the ballot win more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held in January between the top two finishers.
Echoing the overall tone of this Senate race, much of the back-and-forth featured in Monday’s frontrunners’ debate centered on Collins and Loeffler, who each punched the other on their records in office, their personal backgrounds and which candidate is a bigger supporter of President Donald Trump.
Collins, a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain who has served four terms in Congress as well as a stint in the General Assembly, posed his experience as a contrast to the appointed Loeffler and argued certain attacks she has made on him reveal misunderstandings with how the legislative process works.
In particular, Collins raised the issue of Loeffler’s use of wealth in the campaign, to which she has devoted $20 million so far of her own money as a former executive in the company run by her billionaire husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeffrey Sprecher.
“She doesn’t want people to know about her past,” Collins said. “That’s the reason she’s spending money.”
Loeffler, who has long touted her rural roots growing up on a family farm in Illinois, has batted back criticism of her wealth and sought to cast herself as a largely self-funded candidate like Trump who is spending her money for the cause of public service.
“Doug Collins doesn’t know me,” Loeffler said Monday. “I don’t need advice from a failed career politician who has built his campaign on lies about someone who is a true conservative.”
The spat continued into Loeffler and Collins’ records and past political activities, with Loeffler accusing Collins of voting often with Democratic favorite Stacey Abrams while in the state legislature and Collins pressing Loeffler to delist Chinese companies from the New York Stock Exchange, which is owned by her husband’s company.
Meanwhile, Warnock fended off an attack from Loeffler over past comments he made criticizing police officers from the pulpit, which were featured on a Fox News segment that both Republican candidates have highlighted.
Warnock, who hails from Savannah, stressed he does not support calls from many Democratic leaders and groups to defund police agencies and noted he believes “it’s possible to appreciate the work that law enforcement members do and at the same time hold them accountable.”
“I do think it’s lamentable that the senator would use her power to politicize an issue where people are literally dying on the streets,” Warnock said Monday.
Warnock also raised the recent controversial endorsement of Loeffler by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican in line to win the 14th Congressional District seat who has made past comments echoing views expressed in the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Loeffler, who has embraced the firebrand Greene, said she does not “know anything about QAnon” but denounces all hate crimes. Collins outright condemned QAnon, while simultaneously challenging Warnock to disavow the so-called Antifa movement on the left.
“I condemn violence no matter where it shows up,” Warnock said.
On the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic, Loeffler reiterated her stance that China played a direct role in allowing the virus to spread to the U.S. and should be punished, both for that health crisis as well as for cavalier trade practices that Trump has also made a hallmark of his administration.
“I will not be an apologist or a shill for China,” Loeffler said. “China brought this disease to our country.”
Collins backed the president’s often-criticized response to the pandemic, noting Trump was quick to close travel between China and the U.S. He urged Georgia businesses and schools to continue reopening with social distancing and sanitization practices.
“Georgia is living proof that you can actually get the economy going and get our state going at the same time and actually make sure the virus is kept in check,” Collins said.
And Warnock stuck with a solidly Democratic position that Trump and state leaders have botched the pandemic response by not enforcing rules like mask-wearing more strictly.
“I wish that the folks who are serving in Washington would pay attention to the science instead of politicizing something as basic and obvious as wearing a mask,” Warnock said.
‘It hurts our republic’
Meanwhile, several candidates criticized the debate process and party leadership on both sides for putting too much emphasis on Loeffler, Collins and Warnock in the race.
Most notably, educator and health-care consultant Matt Lieberman urged Georgians to not “vote for one of these three stooges,” arguing he represented the best chance for voters to pick a candidate who would not be beholden to major party figures and agendas.
“The establishment Republican and establishment Democratic candidates in this race are like party drones,” said Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. “What’s the good for us in Georgia to have a senator who’s just going to be about agreeing with Donald Trump or [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or [U.S. Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer or anyone like that?”
Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, who like Lieberman has faced calls to drop out of the race and make way for Warnock, touted his experience as a lawyer, U.S. Army veteran and former state senator to argue why he should keep campaigning.
“I think we’ve gotten a chance to see why many believe that our government in Washington is as polarized as many have ever seen, why many think it’s broken and divided and that people have forgotten about the simple commitment to represent Georgians and not represent political parties,” Tarver said.
Others like Libertarian candidate Brian Slowinski also took jabs at party leadership and media outlets that they feel have shut them out of the process with little news coverage and the split debate format, in which candidates who have not polled higher than 3% shared a different stage from those who have polled higher.
“I also want to talk about candidate suppression as well,” Slowinski said. “It hurts our republic when not everybody is being covered.”
The 10 candidates who shared the second-tier stage expressed similar points while articulating a variety of policy proposals ranging from universal basic income and the Green New Deal to terms limits in Congress and a flat fair tax.
They included Al Bartell, Alan Buckley, John Fortuin, Derrick Grayson, Annette Davis Jackson, Deborah Jackson, Tamara Johnson-Shealey, Valencia Stovall, Kandiss Taylor and Richard Dien Winfield.