The Hits & Misses from The Georgia Senate Runoff Debates

Incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler (Left) debates Democratic challenger Reverend Raphael Warnock (Right).

In the aftermath of the November elections, all eyes are on the Peach state as both of their Senate contests failed to reach 50%+1 of the vote share for any single candidate; thus, runoff elections were automatically triggered. These Senate runoff contests are critical because they will decide the balance of power in the Senate. Just one GOP victory will keep the chamber in their hands, but two Democratic victories will narrowly give control to the Democrats with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Below are the hits and misses from the final debates before the election on January 5th. Because incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue did not attend his debate with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, most of the focus of this analysis is on the debate between incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Governor Brian Kemp to replace a retiring Republican earlier this year, and her Democratic challenger, Reverend Raphael Warnock.

Hits:

Playing to the Base — In a night that featured less direct debate and more talking past one another, it was clear that both candidates are well aware that this election is about getting out their base. Anyone hoping to see some serious back-and-forth action was disappointed alongside the journalists who moderated the debate and had several of their questions go unanswered. To Warnock’s credit, he was at least somewhat more willing to respond to the substance of his opponent. Regardless, both left the stage with a performance sure to rouse their political base which, politically, is a must for this race.

A Point of Agreement: Taking the Vaccine — The two candidates agreed on almost nothing save for one critical issue, taking one of the soon-to-be approved COVID-19 vaccines. As Warnock promised he would take it, saying, “Absolutely. When our health professionals tell us that we have a vaccine that works and is effective and safe, I will take it,” he also promised to encourage his supporters to take it as well. Loeffler too replied with “absolutely,” and also promised to motivate Georgians to receive the vaccine when it is available. Thankfully, this life-saving measure stands to not be politicized in this contest.

Warnock’s Retort on his Alleged Support for Marxism — It is clear that Marxism’s history is written in red from the blood of so many who tragically suffered and died at the hands of its cruel ideologues, so a charge that one’s political opponent is a Marxist rightfully carries tremendous weight. That also means it is morally reprehensible for one to falsely charge another as a serious proponent of such a hideous ideology. Upon a careful review of the evidence that Kelly Loeffler has cited to make this allegation, it is clear that she is misrepresenting his openness to thinking about economic inequality from a classist perspective, among others, as a full endorsement of the ideology which it honestly is not. Warnock’s focus on inequality and openness to redistribution puts him left of center, but the gulf between that perspective and Marxism remains quite considerable. Again, it is quite reprehensible for Loeffler to be so intellectually dishonest about something so deadly and serious.

With that being said, Warnock’s defense to the charge was impressive. He refused to accept the frame that she gave him instead opting for his own in which he began by saying, “I believe in our free enterprise system, and my dad was a small business owner” before going on to highlight the initiatives he took to assist people during the Great Recession including promoting financial literacy. This ‘show, don’t tell’ frame provided tangible evidence to how the reverend is not the business loathing radical that Loeffler has tried to caricaturize him as while also allowing him to pivot to his argument that he has done more to help others live the American Dream unlike Loeffler who he charged as being more focused on her own stock portfolio.

Ossoff Taking Questions — It is a shame that Georgians only got to see a debate for just one of their two Senate runoff contests. However, they did not leave Sunday empty-handed from the other race entirely because Jon Ossoff still showed up. For the majority of almost thirty minutes, Ossoff answered an array of questions from the moderating staff. Ossoff also made sure to take the opportunity to not only make the case for himself but draw contrast against his rival, Senator Perdue. Politicians should work to earn their votes and that means taking questions and participating in debates, so it is respectable that Ossoff did that regardless of his challenger’s attendance.

Misses:

Loeffler’s Failure to Recognize Reality — Easily the most newsworthy moment of the debate was Loeffler’s inability to recognize that President Trump has fairly lost the presidential election as she repeatedly obfuscated her answers to the series of questions on the topic by noting his real right to legal recourse and repeating the false notion that it was “very clear that there were issues in this election.” President Trump’s inability to publicly admit defeat has put both Perdue and Loeffler in a politically difficult position of being unable to make the case that the pair represent the last defense to a complete Democratic takeover of Washington because doing so would anger the base that is already contemplating sitting this runoff election out in protest of fictitious election fraud. That she could not stand with her fellow Republican Georgia election officials in defense of the truth is a pitiful vacancy of courage. One that could ultimately cost her some of the suburban voters who were willing to ticket-split in November voting for Biden and down-ballot Republicans. In a race that is likely to be nearly as tight as the Presidential contest was earlier, every vote counts.

Warnock’s Critical Dodges — A chief aim of debates is to illuminate where candidates stand on the issues, but that cannot be done when they evade answering tough questions. Unfortunately for Georgians, and the rest of the country curious about its future, Reverend Warnock declined to answer two important questions. When asked about how much he thought the proper COVID-19 relief package from congress should cost, Warnock avoided the question in favoring of arguing about how the package must focus on the needs of workers. Now, given how fluid the negotiations are and how complex the subject is, Warnock did not have to lock onto just one number. He could have instead offered a range, or ranges across different possible scenarios. That would have been satisfactory unlike his actual answer.

More glaring and troubling though was the declination to reveal his thoughts on the proper number of Supreme Court Justices. Warnock evaded by saying, “people aren’t asking me about the courts and whether we should expand the courts. I know that’s an interesting question for people inside the beltway to discuss.” More than just that, this is an issue that has significant ramifications for a multitude of issues. Sure, it may be tempting to be all things to all people, but voters deserve to at least learn something about his perspective on the issue if not his outright position.

Loeffler’s False Attacks & Smears — Instead of making the case for herself and promoting her vision for Georgia, Loeffler spent the night smearing her opponent as a “radical liberal” with charges that frequently lacked context or any truth all together. Of course, debaters should challenge their opponents, but only with real arguments, not ones that are either wildly misconstrued or fabricated.

In addition to the aforementioned false allegation of being a Marxist, Loeffler also falsely accused Warnock of inviting Communist Dictator Fidel Castro to his church despite no evidence of the decision being Warnock’s and Warnock refuting the claim himself. Weaponizing past comments that were already clarified years ago, Loeffler falsely attempted to portray Warnock as “divisive” over past comments on Israel. Loeffler also dishonestly generalized a comment Warnock made about specific police officers as if it they were his thoughts on police officers broadly; they were not. Bereft of any context or evidence, Loeffler insinuates that Warnock maliciously obstructed a child abuse investigation despite the fact that the charges were dropped and his work was praised from law enforcement.

Senator Loeffler would have done better to have focused on real objections to Warnock, like disagreements over policy, mixed with support for her own candidacy instead of a non-stop stream of misleading and false accusations.

Warnock’s Misleading Attacks — The reverend has made it a point both on the debate stage and in commercials, such as this humorous one, that many of the attacks he receives are not true. That is true, but he himself also made misleading attacks against Loeffler during the debate. Taking a page out of Loeffler’s own debate playbook towards the end of the night, Warnock made a claim about two of her high-profile supporters that at best needs additional context. Warnock’s gimmicky claim that Loeffler voted to defund the police was also considerably misleading given the structure of the vote she took. It would have made for quite a respectable contrast had the reverend practiced what he preached against his opponent just as Ossoff did.

Loeffler’s Robotic Performance & Canned Answers — Senator Loeffler’s stiff posture and repetitive answers made for poor debate form. She felt lifeless and overly rehearsed. Republicans casting Democrats as “radical liberals” is already trite, but her overuse of that in front of Warnock’s name almost every time was quite cheapening of the tactic. Anytime that Loeffler was faced with legitimate concerns into her stock trading practices as Senator, her go-to line was “Look, I have lived the American dream.” That is not exactly the kind of defense to assuage concerns. Preparation is key for any debate, but so too is fluidity in delivery which Loeffler clearly lacked to her detriment.

Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff takes questions from moderators without Incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue.

Perdue’s Cowardly Absence — Politicians owe it to us, not the other way around. Debates are a wonderful democratic tradition in America that allow voters to learn more about candidates and their differences. Sure, Perdue had a terrible first debate against Ossoff, but that is no excuse to walk away. It is a behavior that is undemocratic and undeserving of a vote regardless of whether one agrees with him or not. It is also unsurprising given that he has not held a public town hall in at least three years and has faced legitimate scrutiny into his stock trading practices as well that he does not enjoy discussing.

If David Perdue wants to be re-elected Senator, he owes it to Georgians to actually make that case with his opponent on a debate stage. For him to avoid facing questions as he has done so in this campaign is quite cowardly.

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Justin Katt

Justin Katt

University of Cincinnati MS marketing graduate who is deeply fascinated by persuasion and politics. I enjoy writing occasional political & business analysis.