Georgia Senate: Gloves come off in Warnock vs. Loeffler race

On the Georgia campaign trail
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election, speaks during a press conference Thursday afternoon outside of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building in Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election, speaks during a press conference Thursday afternoon outside of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building in Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The campaign between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and the Rev. Raphael Warnock entered a new, more combative phase Thursday as Loeffler unleashed two new ads opposing the Democrat, who hit back by calling her alliance with Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene “shameful.”

Warnock responded to Loeffler’s ads at a press conference that the Democrat originally called to discuss his health care platform. He also used the moment to level harsh words of his own against the senator.

“Kelly Loeffler ... sits down for interviews with known white supremacists and accepts the endorsement of a candidate who traffics in the QAnon conspiracy theory that is rife with hatred and bigotry,” Warnock said. “It is shameful.”

In August, Loeffler granted an interview to Jack Posobiec of the One America Network. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time, Jewish groups and media observers pointed out that Posobiec promotes conspiracy theories and once associated with white supremacists including Richard Spencer, who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Loeffler accepted Greene’s endorsement in October at a rally in Greene’s soon-to-be congressional district, several months after reports that Greene had promoted conspiracy theories connected to QAnon.

Warnock also took Loeffler to task Thursday for calling for Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger’s resignation following November’s election, even though there has been no substantiated evidence of widespread fraud or even an inaccurate vote count to date.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Kelly Loeffler is playing games with our democracy, that she is trying to diminish the integrity of something as basic as our democracy,” Warnock said.

The ads Warnock responded to will get $1 million worth of airplay across the state from the Loeffler campaign.

They are designed both to soften Warnock’s poll numbers ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff and to rev up GOP turnout in the contest.

After Warnock went largely unscathed in the general election, Loeffler’s attacks highlight footage of him defending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 and claim he’d “give the radicals total control” if elected.

Warnock was one of Wright’s most prominent defenders when his sermons became a flashpoint in Barack Obama’s 2008 bid for president.

In the first 30-second spot, a narrator accuses Warnock of peddling “anti-American hatred” for supporting Wright.

The second ad opens with an image of schoolchildren pledging allegiance to the flag as a narrator warns of an attempted takeover by the “radical left.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and other Republicans also highlighted Warnock’s 2002 arrest on social media to help Loeffler and David Perdue in the twin runoffs, and Loeffler’s campaign joined in the barrage on Thursday.

Media reports and court records show the charges against Warnock for allegedly obstructing a child abuse investigation were dropped at the request of law enforcement and investigators said he was “very helpful” with the probe. They blamed miscommunication and apologized for the arrest.

The flurry of attacks underscores the new dynamic that’s fast surfaced in the nine-week runoff. Warnock managed to avoid damaging broadsides in the general election campaign while Loeffler and fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins bruised and battered each other.

“We expected these, as we told you,” Warnock said Thursday, calling Loeffler’s new tack “a campaign of division and distraction.”

Public option

The tough talk against Loeffler came during a press conference Thursday that Warnock originally scheduled to talk about health care coverage, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

Warnock has said throughout the campaign that he’d like to see the ACA strengthened and Medicaid expanded as a way to provide more affordable coverage to low-income people in the state.

On Thursday, he also endorsed adding a public option to the measure.

“When we were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act a few years ago, I was disappointed that we didn’t pass the public option,” Warnock told the AJC. “And I think that that would be a viable path in this moment, something that I would like to see.”

Loeffler has said she wants to see a market-based approach to expanding health care coverage rather than government-supported programs.

Look for health care to continue to be a central messaging issue for all four campaigns heading into the runoff.

Lincoln throwback

SAVANNAH — No pressure, Georgia. Voters have been told the stakes are sky-high in every election in modern history, but the rhetoric has ratcheted up with U.S. Senate control hinging on the outcome of twin January runoffs.

At a rally here for Democrat Jon Ossoff, state Rep. Al Williams called the races the most important Senate contests since Abraham Lincoln competed against Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Stacey Abrams said the difference in the nation if Ossoff and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock are defeated is “going to be tremendous and jarring — and possibly existential.”

Republicans are just as amped. Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called it “literally the showdown of all showdowns” at rally to promote Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

Ossoff, meanwhile, spoke of how important Joe Biden’s 14,000-vote lead over President Donald Trump is to the psyche of Democrats who haven’t won a statewide race since 2006.

“Maybe you felt these last few days what I have in my heart for the first time in a while, y’all. It’s hope. Change has come to Georgia,” Ossoff told a cheering crowd of more than 100 at a rail museum on the outskirts of downtown.

“We’re feeling hope right now because we’re waking up and realizing that the nightmare is over. And now it’s up to us,” he added. “The future has arrived, and it’s up to us to define that future.”