Loeffler and Warnock trade barbs in echo chamber of Senate runoff debate

Meanwhile, Democrat Jon Ossoff spoke next to an empty podium after incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue chose not to appear for Sunday's debate, hosted by the Atlanta Press Club

Kelly Loeffler Raphael Warnock debate
Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock during Sunday night’s debate.

Screenshot via GPB/Atlanta Press Club/YouTube

Reverend Raphael Warnock defended his devotion to Christianity while voicing openness to reproductive choice; Senator Kelly Loeffler dismissed allegations that she’d worked her political post to make money in the stock market; Jon Ossoff demanded more financial assistance for Americans afflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic; and Senator David Perdue played hooky.

On Sunday evening, three of the four candidates vying for a pair of U.S. Senate seats went toe-to-toe—or, in Ossoff’s case, toe-to-vacant podium—on all things related to Covid-19 response, elections integrity, racial justice, and more. Now, just a month separates Georgians from a runoff election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate, which has been majority Republican since 2015.

For about a half hour, Ossoff—a Democrat, documentary filmmaker, and one-time Congressional candidate—blasted the Republican incumbent, Perdue, for refusing to show up to the final debate before the election. (The Atlanta Press Club, the debate host, said in a statement it was “disappointed” that the senator opted not to participate, but “according to our rules,” he would be represented by an empty podium.) Ossoff said Perdue, who’s been under fire for his stock market moves while in office, was “afraid he could incriminate himself” if he showed up. Flanked by the empty dais, Ossoff was essentially afforded a lengthy—and free—campaign ad ahead of the election, in which he touted plans to increase the minimum wage, fight climate change, and reform restrictive immigration policies.

The real debate, though, saw Republican Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman-turned-senator, and Democrat Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, spar over policy goals, but mostly over politics. The discourse checked all the usual boxes. Loeffler repeatedly slurred Warnock, calling him a “radical liberal” hell-bent on hiking taxes, seizing guns, and defunding the police. And Warnock repeatedly jabbed at Loeffler for allegedly enriching herself amid the pandemic at the expense of the American people. The Georgia Public Broadcast studio where the debate was held served as a sort of echo chamber for their digs at one another.

Loeffler wagged a finger at Warnock for referring to law enforcement as “gangsters, thugs, and bullies” when he was preaching. Warnock volleyed, noting he wouldn’t “defund” police: “I just think you can affirm what law enforcement officers do and hold them accountable, too.”

Warnock, as well as debate moderators, pressed Loeffler to concede that President Donald Trump had, in fact, lost the election in Georgia and nationwide. She wouldn’t. “The president has every right to pursue every legal recourse available,” she said, repeatedly.

Loeffler interrogated Warnock about a 2002 arrest for obstructing an investigation into allegations of child abuse at a church-run camp. Warnock said he was just trying to ensure kids weren’t questioned by law enforcement without a lawyer, or at least a parent, present. (The charges were ultimately dropped, and law enforcement chalked up the arrest to a miscommunication, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

They also traded barbs about the need to provide Americans more pandemic relief. Warnock accused Loeffler of not doing enough to get citizens more help amid the economic fallout. Loeffler said she was instrumental in getting Georgians the assistance they’ve already received. She also claimed the “Russia hoax” had distracted officials from focusing on the virus and said Democrats were to blame for stunted relief packages.

Warnock claimed Loeffler’s vast wealth—her net worth is reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars—has clouded her understanding of how the average American lives. Loeffler countered that she’d achieved the “American dream” only after years of working on a farm and waiting tables. “I started filling out a timecard when I was 11,” she said, adding that she knows what it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck. (She was recently lambasted on social media for a campaign ad claiming she understands the plight of low-wage workers.)

A devout Christian, Loeffler chided Warnock for his support of expanding women’s access to reproductive healthcare. “I don’t need a lecture from someone who has used the Bible to justify abortion,” she said. Warnock parried. “I have a profound reverence for life and an abiding respect for choice,” he said. “The question is: Whose decision is it? A patient’s room is too small a place for a woman, her doctor, and the U.S. government.”

It went on like this for nearly an hour, with both candidates interpreting the moderators’ pointed questions as tacit invitations to ramble on about the shortcomings of their opponent. It was clear they were both preaching to entirely different groups of Georgians, and, odds are, few, if any, voter minds were changed on Sunday evening. But, as Warnock insinuated at the tail of the face-off, this tired contest is almost over. “It’s dawn,” he said. “It’s dark right now, but morning is on the way.”

Watch the full debate below: