Loeffler and Warnock exchange barbs in fiery debate; Ossoff goes it alone

GOP U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock exchanged sharp attacks in a Dec. 6 debate ahead of Georgia's Jan. 5 runoff election. AP Photo/Ben Gray, pool

President Donald Trump’s unacknowledged loss in Georgia continues to complicate Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s argument for voters to back her in the Jan. 5 runoff.

Loeffler, fresh off a Saturday rally with the president in Valdosta, voiced her support for Trump’s post-election legal campaign during Sunday night’s Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate at Georgia Public Broadcasting. But she also framed the runoffs in stark terms with nothing less than the American dream on the line.

“You can see what’s at stake, there are two visions for our country. Mine: the American dream. My opponent’s: socialism. This is what’s on the ballot, Jan. 5, the American dream,” said Loeffler, a finance executive and part-owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s professional basketball team.

It was the first, and potentially the only, debate for the high-stakes runoffs that could decide which party controls the upper chamber. If the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win, that would leave the Senate with a 50-50 split, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a tie-breaking vote and give Democrats control of the federal government.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 executive, was pushed into a runoff with Democrat and investigative reporter Jon Ossoff after finishing just shy of 50% of the total vote haul needed to win reelection outright. Polling continues to show a close race between the two. Perdue declined to participate in the debate and was represented by an empty podium.

Warnock led a crowded field on Nov. 3, finishing with nearly 33% of the vote. Loeffler, who was appointed a year ago by Gov. Brian Kemp after Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped down, pushed out U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for a spot in the runoff after winning about 26% of the vote. A new poll from 11 Alive/SurveyUSA shows Warnock with 52% to Loeffler’s 45%.

The first day of early voting is now just a week away. Paper absentee ballots are already being sent out to voters, and already, more than 1 million voters have requested ballots for the runoffs. Monday, Dec. 7, is the last day to register to vote.

When pressed by the moderator on whether Loeffler’s argument to voters amounted to tacit acknowledge of the president’s defeat, Loeffler evoked the impeachment proceeding that started in the Democratic controlled House and ended with an acquittal in the Senate. She called the Senate the “shock absorber.” Warnock pointedly asked her: Did Trump win the election?

“President Trump has every right to use every legal recourse available,” she said, noting that the Secretary of State’s Office has said it is investigating 250 cases and that the recounts have turned up uncounted ballots.

Loeffler had just appeared alongside Trump at the weekend rally held in deeply conservative south Georgia, where the president falsely said he won the state and called the election rigged. He urged his supporters to turn back out and vote for Loeffler and Perdue anyway.

“I believe in our norms. I believe in the separation of powers, and I believe in the non-violent, unchaotic transition of power,” Warnock said.

“Kelly Loeffler ought to stand with the people of Georgia. The four greatest words ever spoken in a democracy are ‘the people have spoken.’ The people have spoken on the presidential election, and they’re waiting on their senator to be focused on them, not the person in the White House.”

Loeffler, for her part, deployed the phrase “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” at least 14 times during the hourlong debate. And she pointedly asked him if he would denounce socialism and Marxism.

“Listen, I believe in our free enterprise system,” he responded, saying his dad was a small businessman and that his church ran a financial literacy center during the Great Recession to help people get ahead. Warnock has accused Loeffler of self-dealing during her brief term.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s GOP governor and Loeffler’s post-debate surrogate, criticized Warnock for not denouncing socialism. “That should have been an easy thing to do,” she said Sunday night.

Warnock’s surrogate, Sarah Riggs Amico, a former Democratic Senate candidate in the Perdue race, called Loeffler a “radical” for not acknowledging Trump’s defeat here in Georgia. “He was very clear: He supports free enterprise,” Amico said. “But he also understands that that free enterprise system gives us a responsibility to take care of some of the most marginalized in our society.”

Ossoff, meanwhile, appeared on the stage alone. Perdue’s campaign, which has said he will focus instead on taking his message directly to the people, promoted photos of the senator campaigning in his hometown Sunday with his cousin, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

“Your senator feels entitled to your vote,” Ossoff said of Perdue’s absence. “Your senator is refusing to answer questions and debate his opponent because he believes he shouldn’t have to. He believes this Senate seat belongs to him. This Senate seat belongs to the people.”

Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff addresses an empty podium that represents U.S. Sen. David Perdue during a debate for U.S. Senate Dec. 6 in Atlanta. Sen. David Perdue declined to attend the debate. AP Photo/Ben Gray, pool

Perdue’s campaign manager, Ben Fry, issued a statement after the debate: “Tonight we witnessed something we didn’t know was possible: a candidate lost a debate against himself.”

Ossoff criticized Perdue on the federal response to the pandemic and hammered Perdue on new revelations, including timely stock trades. The Justice Department investigated his stock trading but did not file charges. Perdue has claimed in an ad that he has been “totally exonerated,” but Ossoff has continued to criticize Perdue’s trading activity partly on ethical grounds.

“The absence of a federal indictment does not constitute clearance of wrongdoing,” Ossoff told reporters after the debate. “Sen. Perdue’s conduct is grossly unethical, a blatant use of his access to privileged information, classified information, legislative information to enrich himself.”