Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler went head-to-head with Democrat Raphael Warnock while Democrat Jon Ossoff debated an empty podium representing his opponent, Sen. David Perdue

By Virginia Chamlee
December 07, 2020 06:19 PM
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From left: Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Rev. Raphael Warnock, an empty lecture meant for Sen. David Perdue and Jon Ossoff
| Credit: Ben Gray/AP/Shutterstock (4)

Two Democrats, one Republican and one empty podium took the stage for a pair of Georgia Senate debates on Sunday, with the politicians squaring off over their usual policy differences as they campaigned for runoff races that will determine which party has control of one half of Congress.

The later of the back-to-back debates in Atlanta saw Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler face her Democratic opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

In the other debate, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, an investigative documentary producer and former political aide, stood beside an empty lectern since Republican Sen. David Perdue declined to participate.

The Loeffler-Warnock debate went largely as expected, with the Republican characterizing her opponent as a "radical liberal" at least a dozen times in the hour-long event. (Warnock has responded to Loeffler's labels, in part, with a tongue-in-cheek ad calling them "smears.")

The two traded barbs on stage on Sunday, with Warnock, 51, seizing on a series of controversial stock picks Loeffler, 50, made in the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Loeffler maintains she did nothing wrong and has not been accused of a crime, though she was investigated along with several other lawmakers.)

At the debate Loeffler, who has increasingly cast herself as a pro-Trump conservative, was also asked whether she stood by the president's narrative that the election was "rigged." She pivoted to say the president had "every right to every legal recourse" into the election results.

"Look, it's vitally important that Georgians trust our election process ... I've called for investigations [into the results]," she said, though the state's Republican election officials said they have investigated and found no wrongdoing.

The bulk of the jabs were standard for a two-party political debate, with Loeffler arguing that a Democratic win would result in higher taxes, a defunded polices and "socialist" policies in the state because the Democrats would have a one-vote Senate majority if both Loeffler and Perdue lose.

Georgia, which had voted for Republican presidential candidates for a generation, narrowly flipped blue in the November election in large part because the Atlanta area repudiated Trump.

With that success, both Democratic Senate candidates are pushing for possible breakthroughs.

On Sunday, Warnock attempted to draw a stark contrast between himself and his opponent, noting that he had grown up in public housing and benefited from federal policies such as Pell Grants and student loans.

"I'm running for the United States Senate against the wealthiest member of Congress ... I'm concerned that Washington is not focused on ordinary people," Warnock said. "You can't tell the difference between Washington back rooms and corporate boardrooms. My opponent represents the worst of that kind of problem."

In response, Loeffler said she was "born and raised on a farm," grew up "working in the fields" and waitressed before she was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Loeffler and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, have a combined fortune of some $800 million, according to Forbes. Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat in 2019 after Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons, is also part-owner of WNBA team the Atlanta Dream.

She and Warnock are pressing different theories of what voters in one of the country's most diverse states want right now. Loeffler, a businesswoman and Georgia's second female senator, was initially seen as a more appealing choice for the Atlanta suburbs. But she weathered a challenge from a more Trump-friendly lawmaker earlier in the race and has largely campaigned in the president's image.

Warnock, meanwhile, would be the first person of color to be a Georgia senator and has deep ties to the religious community and to the state's civil rights history — which could be crucial themes.

He has served as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 2005, the same church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

Loeffler's wealth has proved controversial when it comes to stock sales she made in the early days of the pandemic.

Following a closed-door Senate briefing about the virus, she unloaded more than $20 million in shares from late January to March. She was investigated by the Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee, which said it found no violations, following the news of the trades.

Her office has said her stock transactions are handled by a third party.

Warnock referenced the stock sell-off in Sunday's debate, claiming Loeffler "used her advantages as a U.S. senator to make millions on a pandemic" while publicly playing down the severity of the virus.

Later in the debate, Loeffler was asked if members of Congress should be barred from trading stocks. Though she said she had been "completely exonerated" of any wrongdoing, she did not answer the question.

With the fate of the Senate hanging in the balance, Democrats have gone after both Loeffler and Perdue, 70, for their recent stock trades, arguing the two reaped substantial financial gains as millions were losing their jobs due to the pandemic.

Perdue, like Loeffler, denies wrongdoing.

A recent New York Times investigation found that Perdue's stock trades have far outpaced other lawmakers, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.

In the earlier Georgia Senate debate held Sunday afternoon (a shorter event due to Perdue's absence) Ossoff, 33, pounced on his opponent's financial interests.

"David Perdue has been getting rich in office," said Ossoff of his rival, a cousin of a former Georgia governor who worked for a number of large companies before winning his Senate seat in 2014. "And instead of taking public health expertise and guidance from the CDC and getting that to the people … he was buying up shares in manufacturers of vaccines and medical equipment and he's not here because he's afraid he may incriminate himself in this debate."

The real focus of the Ossoff-Perdue debate, though, was the empty podium, which the Democrat used as a tangible reminder of what he called Perdue's cowardice.

Perdue, said Ossoff, was "so arrogant, that he's not with us here today to answer questions."

"Your senator feels entitled to your vote," said the former investigative journalist, addressing voters directly. "He believes this Senate seat belongs to him."

Perdue's campaign has criticized Ossoff, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2017, as "unserious and unprepared."

Last month, Perdue's campaign manager CNN that the senior senator would not participate in the final debate, arguing he had a "commanding first place win" in the November election and would have been elected were it not for Georgia's 50 percent vote-threshold requirement.

“We’ve already had two debates in this election,” Perdue's campaign manager said then, adding, “We’re going to take our message about what’s at stake if Democrats have total control of Congress directly to the people.”

Georgia's Senate runoff elections will take place on Jan. 5.