Georgia Republican Loeffler faces Warnock forward of election that can set U.S. Senate management

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump campaigns for Republican U.S. senators Perdue and Loeffler during a rally in Valdosta, Georgia

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By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler faces off with Democratic challenger the Rev. Raphael Warnock on Sunday in what is likely to be their final debate before two Georgia runoff elections that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.

Senator David Perdue, the other Georgia Republican fighting to hold his seat on Jan. 5, opted out of debating Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff again, leaving his rival alone on stage on Sunday.

Ossoff said Perdue may not want to talk about his frequent stock trades while a senator. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice shut an inquiry into Perdue’s trades in shares of a financial firm without charges, the New York Times reported last month.

“Senator Perdue, I suppose, doesn’t feel that he can handle himself in a debate, or perhaps is concerned that he may incriminate himself in a debate, both of which in my opinion are disqualifying for a U.S. senator seeking re-election,” Ossoff said.

Perdue’s campaign has said he does not manage his stock portfolio day to day.

Georgia has not elected a Democratic U.S. senator in 20 years, but President-elect Joe Biden’s narrow defeat there of President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election has given Democrats hope. They face an uphill battle, however, and need to win both races to deny Republicans a Senate majority that could be used to block much of Biden’s legislative agenda.

Republicans are training much of their fire on Warnock, a political newcomer and the Black senior pastor of the Atlanta church where civil rights champion the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.

Loeffler, in a series of attack ads, has sought to portray Warnock as a dangerous radical who is anti-police, anti-Israel, “Marxist” and tied to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a sermon in which the Black Chicago pastor declared: “God damn America!”

Warnock contends Loeffler’s campaign is trying to frighten people by taking things he has said out of context. A Warnock campaign spokesman described the attacks as an attempt to distract voters’ attention from Loeffler’s record on healthcare and other issues.

The debate between Loeffler and Warnock is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT) in Atlanta.

TURMOIL AMONG GEORGIA REPUBLICANS

The road to the runoffs poses challenges for both parties. Biden demonstrated that a Democrat could win in the historically conservative state by defeating Trump there by 49.5%-49.3% in last month’s election.

That outcome has sparked recriminations among Republicans, with Trump, who has not conceded defeat, blasting Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and Loeffler and Perdue calling for the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

In a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, on Saturday night, Trump urged the crowd to vote Republican in the Senate runoffs despite his unsubstantiated claims of significant electoral fraud in the state. He also repeated baseless allegations of fraud in the national election that cost him the White House.

Loeffler and Warnock have already debated each other once in October, along with Republican Representative Doug Collins and three others who participated in the crowded first round of their race.

Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, was appointed to her seat a year ago after the former occupant retired. She trailed Warnock in her complicated 20-candidate Nov. 3 contest, when Warnock got 32.9%, Loeffler took 25.9% and Collins came in at about 20%.

While Sunday may be the only debate of the runoff campaign, Georgia voters are seeing plenty of the candidates, as a breathtaking amount of money has been spent on television ads.

Nearly $310 million has already been spent either to air ads or to reserve TV ad time in the two runoffs through the Jan. 5 election, according to AdImpact, an advertising tracking firm.

The Warnock and Ossoff campaigns have framed their messages around healthcare, COVID-19 relief and Republicans’ response to the pandemic, and have accused Loeffler and Perdue of profiting improperly through stock trades, charges denied by the two Republican senators.

The Justice Department closed a probe into stock trades made by Loeffler and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jim Inhofe earlier this year, shortly before market turmoil tied to the coronavirus outbreak, media have reported. They all denied wrongdoing.

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