U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler slammed the “mob rule” at an Atlanta site where a Black man was killed in a struggle with police. Her top GOP rival, Doug Collins, sharply criticized how local prosecutors handled the shooting death that triggered those protests.
And U.S. Sen. David Perdue, also up for election in November, blasted how Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for an “unacceptable” response to a recent spate of violence in the city.
The three Republican U.S. Senate candidates have echoed President Donald Trump’s attempt to energize the party’s conservative base with promises of law-and-order to boost their standing as a series of recent polls show a tightening race in Georgia.
“It’s about what’s right and wrong,” Collins, a four-term congressman, said in an interview. “This is a civil discourse about American values of rule of law. Are we supporting our police officers and our communities? Because that’s what we’ve got to do.”
The three have vigorously pushed a pro-law enforcement message as they try to link their Democratic opponents with the “defund police” push – a nebulous movement that calls for less funding, or the outright abolishment, of law enforcement agencies.
The top-tier Democrats in the races have each disavowed the “defund” movement, and their allies warned that the GOP rhetoric seeks to stoke a new culture wars that could further divide the country.
“It’s just sad that at a moment when our state and country desperately needs and craves leadership we have elected officials who are more interested in sowing the seeds of division than trying to unite Georgians rather than uniting in the fight against COVID,” said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell.
The latest evidence of this Republican approach was on display over the last week when Loeffler, the co-owner of a WNBA franchise, objected to the league's plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and called for teams to put an American flag on all apparel instead.
The fallout was swift: The WNBA's player association urged the league to force her to sell the Atlanta Dream. Democrats, including her opponent Raphael Warnock, assailed her comments. And the team rebuked her in a joint statement that pointedly urged WNBA fans to "vote in November."
The criticism wasn’t just from across the aisle. Collins called it a “desperate attempt to find relevancy with the Georgia Republican voters” and questioned why she hadn’t opposed earlier WNBA initiatives, such as a promotion that benefited Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization.
For Loeffler, though, there was a potential political payoff. Her November special election campaign, a free-for-all against 20 other opponents, hinges on winning over the conservative base and avowed supporters of President Donald Trump.
The statewide tour that kicked off shortly after she unveiled her WNBA stance generated intense media attention, garnered her appearances on national cable TV shows, and drew sizable crowds a recent stops.
At one of those appearances, in Woodstock last week, she tried to draw a line between the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner near the site of a burned-down Wendy’s in Atlanta where Brooks was killed.
“When you don’t stand up for the murder of an 8-year-old girl in an autonomous zone by a lawless mob, and they don’t defend that little 8-year-old girl, you understand there’s something else at play here,” said Loeffler. “It’s division. It’s not about bringing people together.”
Democrats called the remarks tone-deaf and predicted her stance would backfire. Warnock, the leading Democratic challenger to Loeffler, said she was “giving in to the narrow impulses of tribalism and bigotry and accusing me of being on the wrong side of history.”
Collins opened his own front. For weeks, he's made Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard a staple of his campaign stump speech. The prosecutor, he tells audiences, has bungled the decision to charge two Atlanta police officers with the death of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot after a struggle.
He escalated his efforts with a letter to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr urging him to open an investigation into Howard's "egregious abuse of power" and accused him being driven by political reasons. (Howard, who has denied the accusations, faces an August runoff against a challenger to keep his seat for a seventh term.)
“I ask that you engage any and all Department of Justice resources you consider appropriate to ensure that these officers are treated fairly under the law, and are not subject to abrogation of their right to be treated fairly under the law simply because they are law enforcement officers,” Collins wrote.
Perdue, meanwhile, has forcefully criticized Bottoms for not more proactively cracking down on violence at demonstrations that have turned chaotic.
And he’s tried to paint his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, as a supporter of the “defund” initiative, seizing on a radio remark where he suggested that extra funding for police departments should be “on the line” if they don’t follow national standards.
The Republican incumbent’s first round of TV ads, released last week, urges the passage of a stalled Republican-backed measure to overhaul policing policies and warns that Ossoff is out to “destroy the American dream for our children and our grandchildren”
“Do we need police reform? Absolutely. But is defunding the police the answer? Absolutely not,” he said in the ads, which began running statewide last week. “Real police reform will make all of our neighborhoods safer and ensure justice for all. We need to put politics aside and get this done.”
Ossoff has repeatedly said he doesn’t support the “defund” effort and tied his approach to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who backs conditioning federal aid to police based on whether they meet “basic standards of decency, honorableness” and competency.
Republicans are likely to step up the message as November nears. In a teleconference on Friday, Donald Trump Jr. said his father’s campaign would continue his vocal criticism of the demonstrations and his public warnings about the threats from Democrats to law enforcement agencies.
“The one thing that everyone in 2020 agrees on is what happened to George Floyd shouldn’t have happened,” said Trump Jr. of Floyd, whose death while in police custody triggered the rallies.
“his isn’t just about racism. It’s gone way beyond that. I’m not sure that looting and burning down the inner cities honors the death of George Floyd.”
Georgia Democrats responded with an eye-roll. State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, accused Republicans of trying to push a law-and-order message rather than seek ways to address systemic racism.
“They’re trying to distract us from moving forward,” said Williams. “Rather than taking steps to make the changes happen, they’re trying to divide us further. It’s a big distraction and it’s not working.”