Loeffler to square off against challengers in 1st debate of chaotic race

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.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face off against her challengers Monday in the first debate of a chaotic special election campaign, offering the top contenders the chance to confront each other over divisive issues that have dominated the race.

There are so many candidates in the free-for-all contest that The Atlanta Press Club has divided it into two separate showdowns: The first, airing at 1 p.m., features 10 of the lesser-known candidates who qualified. The 3 p.m. airing includes the top contenders.

And that’s fitting for a contest that’s always been shaped by two separate dynamics. Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins are treating the election as a GOP primary, scrambling to outrace each other to the party’s right flank. And Raphael Warnock has sought to snuff out his Democratic rivals and consolidate the left-leaning vote.

Since Georgia law requires a majority of the vote to win, a Jan. 5 runoff is widely expected with so many competitors sharing the same ballot. The winner would fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, and the election could determine control of the closely-divided U.S. Senate.

Here’s a look at the factors that will shape the showdown:

How to watch: The dual debates will be livestreamed at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m on GPB.org and air at 8 p.m. on GPB-TV and the Atlanta Press Club’s Facebook site. Because of the pandemic, the debate will be held online. The press club’s debate for Georgia’s other U.S. Senate seat was held last week.

What the polls show: Warnock has steadily climbed in the polls as a multimillion-dollar ad campaign bombards the airwaves, while Loeffler and Collins are deadlocked in a race for second-place. Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver, as well as Libertarian Brian Slowinski, are in the single-digits.

Who’s participating: Though 20 candidates are on the ballot, the debate includes 16 of them. One contender dropped out of the race, another declined to participate and two others couldn’t be reached. The slate of top-tier candidates features Collins, Lieberman, Loeffler, Slowinski, Tarver and Warnock.

071520 Atlanta: Congressman Rick Allen (from left) President Donald Trump,  Congressman Doug Collins, Senator David Perdue, and Senator Kelly Loeffler great each other as the president visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. The visit focuses on a rule change designed to make it easier to process environmental reviews.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
071520 Atlanta: Congressman Rick Allen (from left) President Donald Trump, Congressman Doug Collins, Senator David Perdue, and Senator Kelly Loeffler great each other as the president visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. The visit focuses on a rule change designed to make it easier to process environmental reviews. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Loeffler vs. Collins: The two Republicans have brutalized one another since before Gov. Brian Kemp tapped Loeffler to the open seat, but this will be the first time they’re able to directly challenge each other with a televised audience.

The four-term congressman has relentlessly tried to paint Loeffler as a phony conservative spending her vast personal fortune to buy the seat. The senator calls Collins a career Washington crony who is too cozy with Democrats. Each has tried to cast themselves as President Donald Trump’s greatest champion.

Both have carved up Georgia’s Republican political establishment, with Loeffler earning the backing of Kemp and many of his top allies while Collins has nabbed endorsements from former Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston. Trump has egged them on, hoping the rift sparks higher GOP turnout.

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, left, and Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are the two Democrats who have announced plans to run against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a November special election. More could enter the race. The winner will serve the final two years of Johnny Isakson’s term. (Handout photo)
Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, left, and Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are the two Democrats who have announced plans to run against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a November special election. More could enter the race. The winner will serve the final two years of Johnny Isakson’s term. (Handout photo)

The Democratic divide: As the Republicans have pummeled one another, Warnock has escaped largely unscathed by the top GOP candidates. But the pastor of Atlanta‘s Ebenezer Baptist Church has faced his own headaches, as party leaders urge Lieberman and Tarver to drop out of the contest and give him a clear shot at a runoff.

What’s next: One more debate for the seat is scheduled on Sunday on Channel 2 Action News – and another round of showdowns is likely before a January runoff.

ExploreAJC Voter Guide for the Georgia Election
ExploreWatch: GPB and Atlanta Press Club candidate debates

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