The top-polling Republican candidates in Georgia’s U.S. Senate special election traded barbs over their conservative bona fides Monday afternoon in a sometimes fierce online debate that featured Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins sniping more at each other than at Democratic front-runner Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Loeffler, Collins and Warnock shared the virtual stage Monday with Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver as well as Independent Brian Slowinski. Another 10 of the lower-polling candidates appeared at a different debate earlier in the day.
A January runoff in the race is a near certainty – an outright win will require 50% plus one vote, and 20 names appear on the ballot in the race. The candidates are seeking to fill the last two years of Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Isakson stepped down last year due to failing health.
A Quinnipiac poll puts Warnock at 41% with Collins at 22% and Loeffler at 20%, but a WXIA-TV poll conducted at the same time gives Warnock a much smaller lead with 30% of the vote, putting Loeffler in second at 26% and Collins behind at 20%.
Though President Donald Trump endorsed Collins to replace Isakson, Gov. Brian Kemp selected Loeffler to fill the seat until a replacement is elected.
Loeffler and Collins launched their bitter war of words soon after Collins announced his intentions to run for the seat, and their bad blood was on full display at the Atlanta Press Club’s debate Monday, with Collins painting Loeffler as a Republican in name only seeking to buy her seat with her vast fortune and Loeffler calling Collins a failed career politician, a liberal and a liar.
“Hardworking Georgians want the truth,” Loeffler said. “They’re tired of a campaign that has been filled with lies directed at me, let me tell you the truth. Gov. Kemp appointed me because I am the conservative in this race. Now look, you’ve said I have no place here, that I’m only here because of my husband, that I should do something I’m qualified for. But you know what, you’ve attacked my hair, my makeup, how I talk, my clothes, where I’m from, you’ve lied about me, you’ve lied about my family. And let me tell you, here’s the truth. I’m here because I’ve earned everything I got. I am the true conservative, I don’t have to have a record that I have to lie about and cover up.”
Collins called Loeffler’s remarks “the most amazing lies” and accused her of keeping a portrait of Chinese Communist Party founder Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in her home and refusing to remove companies owned by the party from the New York Stock Exchange, which is owned by her husband.
“I’ve never mentioned anything personally about her hair or anything else, but it’s amazing what she has talked about me, and she spent over $35 million doing it,” Collins retorted. “You know what’s really interesting here, Kelly, this is really the true issue. There are lies going on, the lies about what you used to do when you worked with Planned Parenthood, when you worked with Michael Bloomberg, when you won’t delist companies. You see, there’s a choice here. You don’t have to wait for legislation, you could actually go against the Chinese Communist Party right now. But you won’t.”
At the time of Loeffler’s appointment, pundits considered her a safe bet to appeal to moderate suburban women, but Collins’ presence in the race meant the two instead must compete for the state’s most die-hard conservative voters. Loeffler and Collins each argued that they would be tougher on China and march in tighter lock-step with Trump.
When asked by Lieberman whether there is anything Trump has said or done that she disagrees with, Loeffler said there is not.
“No, because I am proud to be the only U.S. Senator with a 100% voting record with President Trump,” she said. “I’ve been named the most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate and have been endorsed by National Right to Life. That’s because I will always stand up for conservative values. That’s what this president is doing.”
Collins countered her numbers, accusing Loeffler of defying Trump on the National Defense Authorization Act.
“Doesn’t look like 100% to me, Sen. Loeffler, maybe your math is wrong or maybe your cue cards are wrong,” Collins said.
Loeffler challenged Warnock’s support for law and order, asking him to apologize for remarks in which she said he compared police officers to thugs and gangsters.
Warnock said he supports law enforcement and has hosted officers in his church as they mourn fallen officers.
“I think it’s possible to appreciate the work that law enforcement members do, and at the same time, hold them accountable,” Warnock said. “We see abuse in all kinds of professions. We see it among those who hold office who abuse their authority, focused on their own financial wealth, rather than the people they’re supposed to be representing. And so I’ll continue to fight for safe communities, and I’ll continue to fight to make sure that we all have equal protection under the law. That’s always been my goal, equal protection.”
When Warnock’s turn came to question an opponent, he asked Collins to disavow QAnon, a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that places President Trump as the last bulwark against a global cabal of devil-worshipping child molesters.
QAnon has been in Georgia headlines because supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene is poised to be elected to Congress to represent a northwest district. Greene recently endorsed Loeffler.
“I don’t agree with QAnon and I have not agreed with them and I don’t support them,” Collins said. “But it’s interesting to me, I never heard you utter the word antifa.”
Antifa is a loose collection of left-wing activists opposed to fascism. Trump and other Republicans have accused antifa supporters of causing violence and property damage, joining in protests over racial justice.
“I condemn violence, no matter where it shows up, or who the source is,” Warnock said. “I’m the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr’s church.”
Loeffler claimed ignorance of QAnon.
“I denounce hate groups of all types, on the left and the right,” she said. “I don’t know anything about QAnon, but what I know is that we need to make sure that we have fighters in Washington for American ideals, who will stand up to the radical left the socialist agenda they’re trying to push on this country that would put government at the center of our lives that would take away our rights.”
This article appears in partnership with Georgia Recorder