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At Georgia Senate debate, Warnock and Loeffler argue over coronavirus relief, police funding

Incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) faced off against the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) at a debate in Atlanta on Dec. 6. (Video: Reuters)
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ATLANTA — Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler repeatedly declined to say who won the 2020 election during Sunday’s debate in one of the U.S. Senate races in Georgia that will determine the balance of power in Washington.

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Loeffler was asked about President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud in Georgia at least five times and ducked at every turn, highlighting the challenge she faces as she tries to court Trump supporters — and the president — without directly repeating his false claims that hundreds of thousands of votes were tainted by fraud in Georgia.

The debate between Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock aired on CNN, reflecting the national focus on a race that has been inundated with money, resources and star power. Fittingly, the event featured repeated mentions of polarizing figures such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and Trump.

Loeffler repeatedly attacked Warnock on Sunday with lines familiar to anyone with a television in Georgia. She uttered the phrase “radical, liberal Raphael Warnock” more than a dozen times, cramming it into nearly every one of her answers during the hour-long debate.

Loeffler also tried to connect Warnock with president Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, saying Warnock’s defense of him proved he was too extreme for Georgia.

Loeffler also defended Trump’s baseless claims that Georgia’s election was riddled with fraud. The claims are at the center of Republican infighting in Georgia, one of the states where Trump is trying to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election. Some of his supporters have insisted Republicans sit out the runoff if officials don’t do more to investigate the alleged fraud.

Loeffler said she had the support of Trump and her party’s most popular politicians, and she stressed, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this state.”

On Sunday, Warnock tried to shoot down some of the more controversial claims that have been made about him in commercials and on stages with GOP headliners. Critics have peppered attack ads with lines from his decades of sermons and statements as a preacher, including the past 15 years leading Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Warnock contrasted his origin story in the Savannah, Ga., projects with the largesse of his opponent, the richest member of the U.S. Senate. He accused her of using her position for personal gain, saying she sold stocks earlier this year after receiving a coronavirus briefing, while publicly playing down the pandemic.

In office, Warnock said, Loeffler “has been focused on the same thing she has been focused on her whole life: herself.” Loeffler said she had been “completely exonerated” of the claims involving her stocks.

Warnock also stressed that his political beliefs were not rooted in socialism and Marxism, but in his Christian faith.

In a state where nearly 32 percent of the population is Black, the debate occasionally dipped into racial issues. Warnock, who is Black, called Loeffler, who is White, a woman who “picked a fight with the Black women on her [WNBA basketball] team.”

“She says she is against racism and that racism has no place, but she welcomed the support of a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist and sat down for an interview with a white supremacist,” he said.

Loeffler retorted that “there is not a racist bone in my body” and said that she had worked to break down racial barriers, bringing capital to Black business owners and promote school choice to benefit Black families.

Loeffler also brought up hot-button issues with racial undertones. She talked about Warnock’s arrest for obstructing a police investigation into a summer camp operated by a church he led in Baltimore, even though Warnock was exonerated and the investigators involved praised his cooperation in the case.

“I was working and trying to make sure that young people who were being questioned by law enforcement had the benefit of counsel, a lawyer or a parent,” he said, later adding that “the question is why is she doing this.”

Twice, Loeffler said her opponent had supported Wright, who she accused of preaching an anti-White message.

“I’m not going to be lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify division,” she said. “To attack our men and women in the military and who has called on Americans to repent for their worship of Whiteness. That’s divisive. That’s hurtful.”

In the other Senate runoff race in Georgia, Republican Sen. David Perdue declined to debate Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. Early Sunday evening, Ossoff took questions from panelists while standing next to an empty lectern marking Perdue’s absence.

Sunday was one of the first times the candidates came together to address the same universe of people. For the past month, Republicans and Democrats have been traversing the same Georgia highways but seemingly moving about in different worlds.

Loeffler, Perdue and planeloads of Republican surrogates have told conservative audiences that the Senate seats in Georgia are all that is preventing a radical, socialist takeover of the federal government, painting Ossoff and Warnock as rubber stamps for Democratic leaders that Republicans have vilified. Warnock, in particular, has been a lightning rod for attacks.

Democrats have painted the Republicans as corrupt politicians who minimized the dangers of the coronavirus even as they sought to benefit financially from it.

Upping the intensity, Georgia is one of the states where Trump and his legal team have made baseless fraud claims about the election and the Republican politicians accused of administering it. Some Republicans have encouraged Trump supporters to sit out the runoffs or to cast protest ballots if the Republican establishment did not support the president’s claims.

Trump split the difference on Saturday. He attended an event in Valdosta, Ga., in support of Loeffler and Perdue, and he criticized their opponents. But the president spent a large chunk of time spreading already-debunked fraud claims.

During the rally, Trump knocked Ossoff and Warnock as “radical Democrats” who would be “total pawns” of Schumer. He also attacked Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, who have repeatedly vouched for the integrity of the state’s elections.

Loeffler addressed the crowd twice. Both times her remarks were interrupted by people chanting “Stop the steal!” or “Fight for Trump.”

8:10 p.m.
Headshot of Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams: Loeffler’s frequent criticisms of Warnock’s interpretation of the Scriptures might resonate with the Christian right, but many Black Christians see the church as an institution of social activism. The church was at the center of the civil rights movement, especially for the right to vote. Politicians frequently visit the Black church for special events and during election season. Indeed, Loeffler has visited historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, where Warnock is the senior pastor.
Vanessa Williams, Reporter on the National desk.
7:59 p.m.
Headshot of Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams: Asked about police violence against Black people, and also about calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “fascist” organization, Loeffler instead repeated her attacks on Warnock as anti-police. Players for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, of which Loeffler is a part owner, were so angered by her criticisms of the movement during this summer’s protests that they endorsed Warnock and sported his campaign T-shirts during games.
Vanessa Williams, Reporter on the National desk.
7:58 p.m.
Headshot of David Weigel
David Weigel: After several questions about Loeffler’s stock trades and attacks from Warnock on that issue, Loeffler was asked directly if members of Congress should “be barred from trading stocks.” The senator stepped around the topic, then referred to the accusations that she benefited from her role in the Senate as conspiracies. “Look, what’s at stake here in this election is the American Dream,” Loeffler said. “That’s what’s under attack when they attack me for a lie. … This is an attack on every single Georgian who gets up every day to work hard to provide a better life for their family.”
David Weigel, National reporter covering politics
7:45 p.m.
Headshot of David Weigel
David Weigel: In the first half of their debate, Loeffler called Warnock a “radical liberal” 12 times, and a “rubber stamp for Chuck Schumer” twice. Warnock’s also returned to some favorite talking points, saying that Loeffler was “trying to distract” from her record when she attacked him. But Loeffer’s stuck much more diligently to her attack lines, and plowed ahead in demanding that Warnock prove he was not a socialist. “Can you, here and now for all Georgians, renounce socialism and Marxism?” Loeffler asked. “Listen, I believe in our free enterprise system,” said Warnock, talking about the financial literacy center at his church.
David Weigel, National reporter covering politics
7:39 p.m.
Headshot of Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams: Loeffler, asked about her outreach to minority communities, mentioned school choice and help for minority small businesses. But she made no mention racial justice, an issue that roiled tensions among Black Georgians this past summer with the vigilante slaying of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, and the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in a fast food parking lot in Atlanta.
Vanessa Williams, Reporter on the National desk.
7:31 p.m.
Headshot of David Weigel
David Weigel: When pressed on whether she would accept Biden’s victory, Loeffler said that there had been “two audits” that “discovered thousands of ballots across several counties here in Georgia that were not counted.” That’s not quite true. After the election, the state ordered a hand audit of the presidential election, which did find uncounted votes in a few counties. The Trump campaign then requested, and got, a hand recount, which was largely completed this week, which did not find the same discrepancies - one reason that the Trump campaign asked for the state to consider holding a new election.
David Weigel, National reporter covering politics
7:28 p.m.
Headshot of Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams: Republican officials and conservative activists have defended Trump’s refusal to concede to Biden by noting that Stacey Abrams refused to concede to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018 after an election marred by irregularities and allegations of voter suppression. But as Warnock noted, Abrams acknowledged that Kemp was the “legal” winner of the contest, but when she announced that she was ending her campaign after exhausting her options in the courts, she said, “Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession.”
Vanessa Williams, Reporter on the National desk.
7:12 p.m.
Headshot of Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams: Warnock embraced his persona as a pastor early on in the debate by offering condolences to Loeffler, whose lost a young staffer in a car accident last week.
Vanessa Williams, Reporter on the National desk.