Georgia Senate Debates Turn Ugly as Loeffler Accuses Warnock of Being 'anti-Israel'

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff debates empty podium after Sen. Perdue is a no-show, ahead of too-close-to-call runoff elections on January 5

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Democratic candidate Rev. Raphel Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler during the debate in Atlanta, December 6, 2020.
Democratic candidate Rev. Raphel Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler during the debate in Atlanta, December 6, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Ben Gray, Pool
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Republican senator Kelly Loeffler accused her Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock of being anti-Israel, said he called Israel “an apartheid state” and had previously defended an antisemite, in a charged debate Sunday ahead of the January 5 runoff election in Georgia. 

Their contest is one of two races in the southern state that will determine who controls the Senate, with the Democratic Party needing to win both to effectively flip the upper house. The Republicans currently have 50 seats compared to the Democrats’ 48, but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

The other fight is between Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.

Loeffler was named as a temporary replacement when Sen. Johnny Isakson retired last year due to ill health. She ran against multiple opponents on November 3 for the ability to complete the last two years of his term. However, because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers – Loeffler and Warnock – were forced into the special runoff election. 

The topic of Israel took center stage during the hour-long exchange at the Atlanta Press Club. In a discussion on race, Warnock – the Black pastor of the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – criticized Loeffler for using her “privilege and power” to “pick a fight” with members of the women’s basketball team she owns over their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Loeffler has called the latter group “fascist.” 

Responding to what she called an “incredibly sad” characterization of her, Loeffler defended herself by saying, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” 

She continued: “I have worked to bring communities together my entire life. But this is really terrible coming from someone who has divided people continually. He’s called on Americans to repent for their worship of whiteness. He’s called Israel an apartheid state and said that we should end military assistance. He’s compared Israelis defending themselves against Palestinians ... to birds of prey. And he’s celebrated Jeremiah Wright, an anti-American antisemite. That’s divisive.”

Wright, the former pastor of President Barack Obama, came under fire during the 2008 presidential campaign over controversial sermons, causing the Obama family to leave his Chicago church.

The Georgia Senate debate between Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock is seen on a screen in Atlanta, Georgia, December 6, 2020.Credit: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/REUTERS

Warnock was attacked by Republicans early in his Senate campaign for past statements in defense of Wright, when he said the pastor’s words had been extracted from their “theological and rhetorical context, and looped to the point of ad nauseam.”

He also released a policy paper in November outlining his position on Israel, when he called himself a “friend of Israel” and that he firmly opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. 

In Sunday’s televised debate, Warnock shot back against his opponent, saying that while Loeffler “says she is against racism and racism has no place,” she had “welcomed the support of a QAnon conspiracy theorist, and she’s sat down with a white supremacist for an interview. I don’t think she can explain that.”

Loeffler accepted an endorsement from then-congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene in October (Greene won her Georgia congressional district the following month), while she was attacked on Twitter for agreeing to an interview with Jack Posobiec – a TV pundit associated with white supremacy and neo-Nazism – on the One America News Network in July. The QAnon conspiracy theory contains “antisemitic elements,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Loeffler repeatedly characterized Warnock as a “Marxist” and “radical liberal” acting as an “agent of change” for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Jewish Democratic senator from New York. 

“My opponent, radical liberal Raphael Warnock, would be a rubber stamp for Chuck Schumer, because he’s bought and paid for by tens of millions of dollars from out of state – dark liberal money from Chuck Schumer,” she charged. 

She added: “The promise that Chuck Schumer made was to fundamentally change America, and I’m making sure we don’t go down the road of socialism. ... We’re going to continue to make sure that Georgians understand that our very way of life here in Georgia and across the country is under attack by the left.” 

Other Loeffler attacks included charges that Warnock has “attacked police from the pulpit,” calling them “gangsters, thugs, bullies,” and that he has used the Bible to “not only justify attacking our military” but “also used it to justify abortion.” She also said that Warnock wanted “prisons to be opened up and emptied out,” and that he advocated opening “our borders.” 

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock during the debate in Atlanta, December 6, 2020.Credit: Ben Gray/AP

Warnock charged that Loeffler “continued to misrepresent my record. She’s lied not only on me, but on Jesus.” He said she was taking his sermons out of context and that Loeffler should have listened to the sermons instead of using them “to make a cheap political point.” 

He aggressively went after Loeffler, one of the wealthiest senators, for allegations that she used information from a private Senate briefing early in the COVID-19 pandemic to dump millions in stocks, enriching herself. Loeffler called the story a “left-wing media lie.” 

Asked several times during the debate whether she believed that President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election nationally and also in the state of Georgia, Loeffler evaded an answer, saying that the president “has every right to every legal recourse, and that’s what’s taking place.”

Sunday’s other televised debate had a more surreal tone as Ossoff debated an empty podium, after Perdue declined to participate.

This combination of photos shows Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff, left, and Republican Sen. David Perdue in Atlanta, November 2020.Credit: John Bazemore/AP

Ossoff suggested Perdue, whose prolific stock trading has drawn attention during the pandemic, declined to debate because he didn’t want to “incriminate himself” over his personal financial activities, which the challenger summed up as a “cartoonish abuse of power.”

The Democratic challenger added: “It shows an astonishing arrogance and sense of entitlement for Georgia’s senior U.S. senator to believe he shouldn’t have to debate at a moment like this in our history.”

The race between Ossoff and Perdue has been fierce, with the incumbent just falling short of winning 50 percent of the vote in last month’s election. He also faced allegations of antisemitism last July when his campaign made an attack ad, charging that “Democrats are trying to buy Georgia.” In the video’s visuals, Ossoff was pictured next to Schumer, with Ossoff’s face seemingly digitally altered to make his nose appear bigger.

Facing criticism, the Perdue campaign claimed that Ossoff’s nose enlargement was an “unintentional error” by a graphic designer. “Anybody who implies that this was anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Sen. Perdue’s strong and consistent record of standing firmly against antisemitism and all forms of hate,” his campaign said at the time. However, the video was then pulled from social media sites.

Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff speaking during a Senate debate in Atlanta, December 6, 2020. Sen. David Perdue declined to attend.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

Both races are currently too close to call. The FiveThirtyEight website wrote Monday that Perdue and Ossoff are roughly tied, while Warnock holds a narrow lead over Loeffler with less than a month to go until Georgia’s Election Day.