Loeffler, Collins and Warnock brawl in their first debate

Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Other candidates try to break through

Georgia’s wild special election for the U.S. Senate somehow got even wilder during the first debate of the contest Monday as U.S. Sen. Loeffler, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins threw verbal punches in a three-way brawl that left the remaining candidates in the crowded race little to do but complain about the process itself.

Monday’s debate, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, included 16 of the 20 declared candidates, split into two panels because of the sheer number of hopefuls. Each had the same goal: to make it to the top of the sprawling field or at least live to fight another day.

A series of recent polls have shown Warnock, Loeffler and Collins increasingly pulling away from the rest of the field, with Warnock quickly consolidating Democratic votes, and Loeffler and Collins battling it out for Republican supporters. With just two spots in a January runoff if no candidate wins 50% plus one vote on Election Day, jabs between the top three Monday were sharp, searing and often personal.

ExploreWatch a replay of the debate

“Do you still have that $56,000 portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in your foyer as seen on social media?” Collins asked Loeffler after she riffed on China sending COVID-19 to the United States.

Loeffler showed more than a flash of anger as she ripped Collins in response, rightly noting that the congressman has said she was only appointed to the Senate by Gov. Brian Kemp because of her husband’s vast fortune.

“You’ve attacked my hair, my makeup, my clothes,” Loeffler shot back. “Let me tell you, here’s the truth: I’m here because I’ve earned everything I got.”

Collins did indeed hammer on Loeffler’s massive spending in the race — more than $20 million so far between Loeffler and her husband, Jeff Sprecher. “There’s a reason Kelly Loeffler is spending $25 to $30 million,” he said, calling her “bought and paid for.”

Loeffler hit back, accusing Collins, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump’s and a high-profile defender during the 2019 impeachment trial, of being a fake conservative.

“(He) partnered with Stacey Abrams. He voted with her 300 times in the Statehouse,” she said.

ExploreWhere candidates for Loeffler's U. S. Senate seat stand on the issues

Even though the two Republicans spent much of their firepower on each other, they also made time to attack Warnock, who has pulled ahead of both in recent polls. Warnock has increasingly had the Democratic playing field to himself, collecting endorsements from high-profile members of the party, such as Abrams and former President Barack Obama, and escaped even mild attacks from other candidates in the race.

Loeffler asked Warnock to apologize for past statements he has made about police officers, and she tried to tie him to Democrats' calls to defund police departments across the country.

Warnock said he has never called to defund the police.

“I support law enforcement. They’ve come to my church many times to work together,” he said, adding, “I think it’s possible to appreciate the work that a lot of members do and at the same time hold them accountable.”

Along with policing, Warnock, Collins, and Loeffler all pushed each other on the increasingly incendiary role of hate groups in American politics. Warnock asked Collins to denounce QAnon, the web of conspiracy theorists who have pushed depraved lies about Democratic leaders. After Collins denounced the group and said he does not “agree with QAnon,” he in turn asked Warnock to denounce antifa, which has been blamed for inciting violent riots across the country earlier this year. (FBI Director Christopher Wray has said antifa is an ideology, not an organization.)

“I condemn violence, no matter where it shows up or who the source is,” Warnock said.

ExploreU.S. Senate Loeffler seat candidate profiles

Without being asked, Loeffler jumped in. “I denounce hate groups of all types, on the left, on the right," she said. "I don’t know anything about QAnon.” Last week, Loeffler accepted an endorsement from Marjorie Taylor Greene, the GOP candidate running in the 14th Congressional District who has promoted QAnon’s discredited theories.

Even as they attacked each other, Collins and Loeffler sought to portray themselves as the most like and most loyal to Trump. Asked for an example of anything she disagreed with Trump on related to his COVID-19 response, Loeffler offered nothing.

Collins praised the president’s response to the pandemic, too, even though Trump was infected with the virus after flouting nearly all public health guidance on the disease.

When Warnock wasn’t being attacked, he pushed his biography and pivoted back to issues where Democrats have focused their campaigns, especially health care.

And Collins expanded on his commitment to oppose abortion, including a defense of a tweet he sent in the hours following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg over her record supporting abortion rights. “I will never back up on being pro-life,” he said.

ExploreGeorgia voter guide

The hardest job in the debate might have fallen to otherwise highly qualified candidates such as Ed Tarver, the former Democratic state senator and U.S. attorney who had to defend his choice even to stay in the crowded field, saying his extensive experience gave him “the preparation, skills and knowledge” to join the U.S. Senate.

Matt Lieberman, another Democrat in the race who is also the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, looked to stand out from the pack by appealing to voters as a fellow fed-up Georgian. “Don’t vote for one of these three stooges,” he said, referring to the trio leading the field.

If the six-person portion of the debate seemed crowded, the earlier, 10-candidate panel was downright packed, so stuffed, in fact, that several first-round candidates spent precious time complaining about the process itself.

ExploreWatch a replay of the 10-candidate debate panel

When Republican Derrick Grayson was asked about abortion, he said he opposes it and pivoted quickly to complain that splitting the debate into two tiers was unfair.

State Rep. Valencia Stovall called the first round for “the forgotten candidates” and took issue with the structure of the debates. “We all paid our qualifying fees,” she said. “This is voter suppression, and it’s not fair.”

Several other candidates agreed.

Allen Buckley, an independent in the race, stopped short of explaining his detailed policy positions on several occasions, explaining he simply didn’t have the time to describe them properly.

Although they weren’t happy with the process, the earlier candidates were exceedingly complimentary of each other, even when their parties differed, debating COVID-19 response, tax policy, the fate of schools and children during the pandemic, and the role of money in politics with cordial professionalism.

If there was a single target in Debate No. 1, it was uniformly Loeffler and her gobs of cash. That included allegations she had faced, only to be cleared, that she had used information gained through a Senate briefing about the coronavirus in purchasing stocks.

“It’s a huge issue to make millions of dollars on the COVID crisis and spend $50 million on your campaign and think you can buy a Senate seat,” Republican educator Kandiss Taylor said. “Because it’s not going to happen.”

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