Facing new attacks, Senate Democratic contenders embrace unity in Georgia

Jon Ossoff has faced skewering attacks from his Republican rival for months. Raphael Warnock is just getting used to the onslaught.

The two Senate Democratic candidates appeared Sunday together for the first time in the runoff cycle, stumping at a joint event in Marietta to a cheering crowd of hundreds.

But their reunion underscored a reality in the campaign: After going largely unscathed for months, Warnock is now under a sustained barrage from his opponent, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Republicans. How he responds will directly impact Ossoff’s chances against U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

That’s because the two Republicans and two Democrats are effectively running as a packaged deal in Jan. 5 runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate. And every hit on Loeffler could hurt Perdue, just as every ding on Warnock could drag down Ossoff.

It’s a dynamic that Republicans have come to grips with, too. Perdue made his first campaign appearance of the runoff cycle last week at a crowded restaurant in Forsyth County, where he and Loeffler said the next eight weeks will be more about appealing to conservatives than preaching to the undecided.

“What we have to do is get out the vote. In Forsyth County, we just had 85,000 votes,” Perdue said of the exurban Republican stronghold. “We do that again, and we win. Kelly wins, I win, and the rest of America wins.”

Of Castro and Wright

The target practice isn’t new for Ossoff or the two Republicans, who have been hammered for months with attack ads.

But because of the unique trappings of the 21-candidate special election, Warnock was mostly ignored by Loeffler and Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins as they pummeled each other for a spot in the runoff.

Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA.  Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Not so anymore. In the last few days, Warnock was falsely accused of “welcoming” Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to a New York City church where he served as a youth pastor, assailed over a 2002 arrest and criticized for defending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a pastor whose sermons became a flashpoint during Barack Obama’s 2008 bid for president.

Over the weekend came a new charge lifted from an opposition file that Republicans promise is still brimming: A video of a 2016 sermon at Emory University in which Warnock said “America needs to repent for its worship of whiteness.”

Warnock spokesman Terrence Clark said those lines were taken out of context by fearmongering Republicans. The sermon was delivered shortly after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape that featured future President Donald Trump’s boast of sexually harassing women, he said, and the pastor’s remarks were focused on a double standard.

Warnock, his spokesman said, was noting that “many people had tolerated then-candidate Trump’s hateful comments toward people with disabilities and marginalized communities, and only expressed outrage after that tape came out.”

Loeffler, meanwhile, posted a video of Warnock’s remarks on social media with a broadside of her own.

“THIS is what division and fear looks like. We are ALL God’s children. This rhetoric is disgusting and offensive.”

‘Love your neighbor’

The Democratic event in Cobb focused on rallying the base and not fending off the latest attacks.

Speaking from atop a pickup truck, both Ossoff and Warnock stuck to uplifting themes. Ossoff said former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump earlier this month heralded a new political era, one in which Americans can be confident their leaders are effectively handling the coronavirus pandemic and other crises.

“We’re living at a moment of crisis and we’ve been terribly misled this year. It didn’t have to be this way,” said Ossoff. “But the nightmare is ending. Trump is leaving. And people who know what they’re doing will be making decisions for us.”

And Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, pitched himself as a voice of reason and clarity in the U.S. Senate.

“Listen, we have important moral work to do,” he said. “Because there are forces at work in our beloved country tonight who do not know how to lead us, so they are trying to divide us. Folks who have no vision traffic in division.”

After the event, Warnock was pressed on the new attacks before a dozen or so TV cameras. He said the unearthing of his sermons were part of a “cookie-cutter” strategy from Loeffler as she tries to distract from her push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

“I am glad that Senator Loeffler is listening to my sermons. One of my favorite sermons is entitled ‘Love your neighbor,’” he said. “And in practical terms, that means you don’t get rid of your neighbor’s healthcare in the middle of a pandemic.”