U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, squared off on stock trades, police support and election integrity in a debate Sunday night ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election.
Hours earlier, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, who owns an investigative journalism company, debated by himself Sunday after incumbent U.S. Sen. David Perdue declined to participate, saying two debates with Ossoff before Nov. 3 election were enough.
Victories for both Warnock and Ossoff would give Democrats control of Congress and the White House following President-elect Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump last month – though Trump has refused to concede as he continues promoting claims of election fraud.
The importance of Georgia’s Senate runoffs for American government took center stage Sunday night, as Loeffler warned Democratic control of Washington, D.C., could spur radical policies while Warnock urged his opponent to stop entertaining Trump’s divisive actions.
While Ossoff stood alone for his Atlanta Press Club debate, Loeffler and Warnock took turns lobbing attacks at each other and playing defense in a race that has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in spending for television ads, social-media outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Loeffler, a wealthy Atlanta businesswoman, batted down allegations she profited from insider information on the risks of COVID-19 before the pandemic took hold in March to make controversial stock trades, saying federal investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“I’ve been completely exonerated,” Loeffler said. “Those are lies perpetrated by the left-wing media and Democrats to distract from their radical agenda.”
Warnock, who is the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has been bashed in attack ads for his past comments criticizing bad-actor police officers whom he described as having a “thug mentality,” as well as his past support for the firebrand Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Following his campaign’s strategy, Warnock on Sunday dismissed attacks from Loeffler and her GOP allies as distractions aimed at stirring emotions in voters rather than engaging in policy discussions.
“It’s clear to me that my opponent is going to work really hard spending millions of dollars of her own money trying to push a narrative about me,” Warnock said. “She’s clearly decided that she does not have a case to be made for why she should stay in that seat.”
Warnock has largely focused his campaign on bolstering health care amid the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. He slammed legislation Loeffler has sponsored on health insurance, arguing it includes loopholes for insurers to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
“She knows that junk health-care plan show rolled out has a loophole in it big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” Warnock said on Sunday. “She can’t explain that, and so she’s trying to misrepresent my record.”
Loeffler has previously dismissed criticism her health-care plan, insisting it would cover pre-existing conditions despite questions over legal loopholes.
On Sunday, she repeatedly called Warnock a “radical liberal” and criticized his stances on criminal justice reform, particularly for reducing prison populations.
“He doesn’t care about safety and security in any community,” Loeffler said. “I’m fighting to make sure we have the resources to keep our communities safe and our police departments well-funded and well-trained.”
Warnock has backed creating a federal body to probe officer use-of-force misconduct and opposed calls to defund police agencies, despite repeated claims from Loeffler to the contrary. He said Sunday that Loeffler was exaggerating his stances on criminal justice reform to suit her campaign’s attack strategy.
“The land of the free is the mass-incarceration capitol of the world,” Warnock said. “People on both sides of the aisle know our criminal justice system needs reform.”
Loeffler and Perdue are both threading the needle between supporting Trump’s quest to reverse his election loss and rallying Republican voters in Georgia who have lost faith in the state’s election system to turn out on Jan. 5.
Loeffler several times on Sunday declined to pick sides in the spat between Trump, whose steadfast supporters she is seeking to court, and Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Loeffler in January following former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement due to health issues.
“My loyalties are with Georgia,” Loeffler said.
Amid Republican in-fighting, Warnock and Ossoff are angling to portray the two wealthy senators as out-of-touch with average Georgians as they push to keep up voter momentum following Biden’s win in Georgia, which was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since 1992.
Ossoff, facing an empty podium, spent much of his one-sided debate Sunday night highlighting Perdue’s absence. He called the Republican senator “arrogant” and accused him of benefiting from insider trading via controversial stock trades early in the COVID-19 pandemic – allegations Perdue has denied.
“Senator Perdue, I suppose, doesn’t feel that he can handle himself in debate or perhaps is concerned that he may incriminate himself in debate,” Ossoff said. “Both of which, in my opinion which are disqualifying for a U.S. Senator seeking reelection.”
Ossoff also reiterated many of his campaign stances including following strict advice from health experts to curb the pandemic’s spread, expanding emergency COVID-19 business loans with more safeguards against corporate abuse and investing in clean-energy jobs and technology.
Perdue, like Loeffler, has stressed federal investigators found no evidence he made illegal stock trades shortly after a closed-door briefing for senators on COVID-19 in January. He has also dismissed news reports on alleged close ties with companies he regulates as a member of several Senate committees.
Perdue has sought to cast Ossoff as too extreme for conservatives, noting a Hong Kong media company’s past purchase of one of his films. His campaign panned Ossoff’s solo debate appearance on Sunday as “an epic failure” largely for giving few details on how he would boost COVID-19 relief.
“These are serious times and Jon Ossoff just showed how unserious – and unprepared – he really is,” said Ben Fry, Perdue’s campaign manager. “Georgians will reject Jon Ossoff once again next month.”
Early voting for the Senate runoff elections starts Dec. 14. The deadline for Georgia voters to register for the runoffs is Dec. 7.
Photo: Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock (left) and Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (right) are campaigning to win a runoff election on Jan. 5, 2020. (Photos by Beau Evans)