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.
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.”
Warnock, Loeffler send surrogates for post-debate spin
Neither Warnock nor Loeffler spoke with reporters after the debate, with both campaigns sending surrogates to spin for them. Like the main event, the clean-up was an exercise in evasion.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who had flown in hours earlier, repeated Loeffler’s attacks on Warnock and claimed that by not saying outright he was not a “Marxist,” he did not use “the opportunity to assure people that he loves America.” Asked about the final question evaded by Loeffler – whether members of Congress should be prevented from trading stock – Noem, a former member of the House, did not answer.
“What’s shocking to me is that all of those allegations against Kelly have been proven false,” she said, turning to criticize Warnock again, specifically for “diverting” on questions he’d been asked. Warnock’s campaign dispatched Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democrats’ 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor, to defend his performance. She went after Loeffler for dodging questions on whether Joe Biden had won Georgia, then tangled with reporters on whether the candidate had done enough to rebut the senators’ attacks, like her claims that he was a socialist or a radical.
"Senator Loeffler’s refusal to acknowledge his response says a lot more about her than it does about him,” she said.
In closing statements, Loeffler echoed talking points, Warnock called for hope in the face of pandemic
In their closing statements, both candidates made their final pitches to voters — showcasing a sharp contrast between the their campaigns and the raw emotions undergirding one of the most expensive and consequential Senate races in runoff history.
Loeffler used much of her time to reprise many of the attacks she leveled on Warnock during the debate — calling him an “agent of change” whom Democrats would use to “fundamentally change America into a socialist country.”
“I’m not going to let that happen,” she said.
Warnock, who spoke last, sought to use the imagery of a pre-sunrise early morning to describe this “dark” time in history with a pandemic and economic crisis buffeting the country. “It’s dark right now,” he said, recalling his late father’s words to him as a child. “But morning is on the way.” He then criticized his opponents as embracing the politics of division “because they have no vision” and cast his election as pivotal to progress on an number of issues.
“Health care is on the ballot, workers are on the ballot, voting rights is on the ballot, criminal justice reform is on the ballot,” he said. “And if you give me the honor of representing you in the U.S. Senate, I’ll be thinking about Georgia every day.”
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.
Loeffler stands by calling Black Lives Matter movement ‘fascist,’ says 'there’s not a racist bone in my body’
Asked whether she stood by her previous comments calling the Black Lives Matter movement “fascist,” Loeffler did not repudiate them.
“Well, the life of every African-American is important, and there is no place for racism in this country,” she said. “But there are organizations whose number one goal is to defund the police. And we know that that hurts minority communities more than anyone. And we have to stand with our men and women of law enforcement. And I will always do that.”
Warnock said criminal justice reform was necessary and that, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery this summer, “a multiracial coalition of conscience [poured] out into American streets.” Rather than understanding that movement, he added, Loeffler “used her enormous privilege and power as a United States senator to pick a fight with the Black women on her team.”
Warnock also added that Loeffler had welcomed the support of QAnon conspiracy theorists and sat down with a white supremacist for an interview.
Loeffler bristled at the accusation she was racist. “There’s not a racist bone in my body,” she said, before going on to attack Warnock with the same phrase — that he was a “radical liberal” — she had used more than a dozen times in the debate.
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.
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.”
Warnock dodged a question about court-packing, an issue that tripped up some Democratic Senate candidates before the November elections.
Asked directly whether he supported adding justices to the Supreme Court, Warnock sidestepped the question multiple times.
At first, he said that “people aren’t asking me about the courts and whether we should expand the courts,” saying voters are more interested in pandemic relief.
Asked again whether he supported expanding the courts, he said such a move was not on his mind. “I’m really not focused on it,” he said. “And I think, too often, the politics in Washington has been about the politicians,” he said, before pivoting to other issues.
Loeffler seized on the lack of a direct answer. “He also is distracting from the fact that he would pack the Supreme Court,” she said. “That’s outrageous. … He would pack the court with radical justices that would legislate from the bench to fundamentally override the Constitution and our laws in this country.”
Loeffler ducks questions on Trump’s false claims of fraud
Loeffler has been pressed multiple times so far in the debate to weigh in on President Trump’s false accusations that Biden’s victory in Georgia resulted from fraud. She also refused to say whether Trump won the election.
She has ducked at every turn, highlighting the awkward spot she’s in trying to court Trump supporters — and the president himself — without directly repeating his false claims that hundreds of thousands of votes were tainted by fraud in Georgia.
Asked what she thinks about Trump’s attacks on Gov. Brian Kemp (R) — who appointed Loeffler to her seat — Loeffler fell back on a rehearsed Republican line that thepresident “has the right to pursue every legal recourse to make sure that this was a free and fair election in Georgia.”
But the president is doing much more than pursuing all legal recourse. He is spreading false statements. He claimed in his rally in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday that the state’s voting machines were rigged to flip votes from Biden to Trump — an allegation that was disproved by a hand recount. He also claimed, without evidence, that mailed ballots were accepted without proper verification of signatures.
Loeffler also noted that “everything is at stake on Jan. 5,” prompting moderator Russ Spencer to suggest that Loeffler seems to be presuming a Trump defeat. Again, she ducked. “Youknow, what’s at stake is a Senate majority,” she said.
After Loeffler repeatedly attacked Warnock on the abortion issue, Warnock defended his views.
“I have a profound reverence for life and an abiding respect for choice. The question is: Whose decision is it?" Warnock said. “And I happen to think that a patient’s room is too small a place for a woman, her doctor and the U.S. government. I think that’s too many people in the room.”
He continued: "But those who are concerned about life, and I certainly am, ought to be focused on the incredibly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality in our country when compared to other developed nations. That’s something the government could work on. And I’ve been working on it my entire career.”
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.
Loeffler sought to push a law-and-order attack on her Democratic rival, repeatedly saying that Warnock did not respect law enforcement and would allow criminals to roam the streets.
The strident messaging was part of an attempt by Loeffler to paint Warnock as an extremist and far out of the mainstream, often taking the preacher’s words out of context.
Almost every time Loeffler mentioned Warnock’s name, she prefaced it with “radical, liberal” — repeating the line throughout the night, and occasionally calling him a “socialist.”
Loeffler accused Warnock of supporting defunding the police, and Warnock responded directly to the charge, saying he did not support that.
Saying Warnock was not someone who “respects our men and women in law enforcement,” Loeffler claimed he would “empty the prisons and end cash bail.”
“He did call police officers gangsters and thugs,” she said, one of several out-of-context references to one of Warnock’s sermons at his church. “He won’t keep our communities safe.” Warnock has pushed for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, but his campaign has said that he does not support a full ban on cash bail, focusing instead on those accused of nonviolent crimes.
Loeffler’s claim that Warnock wants to empty prisons takes one of his quotes out of context — he was speaking specifically about legalizing marijuana. “It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana; somebody’s got to open up the jail cells and let our children go,” he said.
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.
Loeffler dodges Warnock’s question: ‘Did Donald Trump lose the election?’
In the second round of the debate Sunday, when the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Warnock said he had a straightforward one for Loeffler:
“My question is actually pretty simple — yes or no: Did Donald Trump lose the election?” he asked.
As she had at the beginning of the debate, Loeffler dodged the question, saying that Trump had “every right” to use any legal recourse available and that there were “investigations that need to be completed.” There has been no evidence of fraud that would change the results of the election, and Georgia certified its election results last month.
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
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.
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.