Georgia: two rightwing Republicans face Democrat in special election debate

Ed Pilkington in New York
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Kelly Loeffler, the Republican US senator from Georgia who has embraced a follower of the toxic rightwing conspiracy theory QAnon in a desperate bid to hang on to her seat, squared off with her Trump-supporting rival and the leading Democratic candidate in their first debate on Monday.

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The virtual debate, staged through separate video links to ensure safety amid the pandemic, was a chance for voters to get to grips with one of the most volatile and chaotic races in the nation. Some 20 candidates are standing in a race which, as a special election, had no primary.

Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat in January following the resignation of Johnny Isakson, is having to fend off a fierce challenge from Doug Collins, an avidly Trump-supporting congressman. The pair have been scrambling over each other in a rapid dash to the right, trying to outdo the other in their radical conservative credentials.

An exchange between Collins and Loeffler featured sparring on a personal angle.

“You’ve attacked my hair, my makeup, how I talk, my clothes, where I’m from,” Loeffler said, adding: “I am the true conservative. I don’t have to have a record I have to lie about,” the Gainesville Times reported.

Collins shot back: “I’ve never mentioned anything personally – her fixtures, hair or anything else. But it’s amazing what she [says] about me.”

Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King preached for eight years, asked Collins if he would condemn QAnon.

That is the virulent conspiracy theory rapidly which claims a cabal of Democrats and billionaires is running a paedophile and human trafficking ring and which the FBI has warned is a domestic terrorism threat.

“I don’t agree with QAnon … and don’t support them,” Collins said.

Loeffler said: “I don’t know anything about QAnon.”

However, last week Loeffler appeared at a press conference with Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spoken favorably about QAnon in the past, to accept the latter’s endorsement.

Greene, who has no Democratic opponent in a staunchly conservative House district in north-west Georgia, has made racist statements and was an early adopter of QAnon

From 2017 Greene was an active proponent of QAnon, publicly praising its anonymous originator as a patriot who “very much loves his country” and is “on the same page as us”. More recently she claimed to have moved away from the movement, telling Fox News she was not a QAnon candidate.

At last week’s event, Loeffler tried to bat away the controversy, telling reporters: “No one in Georgia cares about the QAnon business.”

Warnock, by contrast, has successfully united his party.

Recent polls put Warnock at around 31%, Loeffler at 23% and Collins at 22%. Under special election rules, the race will go into a January run-off between the top two should none of the candidates secure at least 50% of the vote.

Most observers expect a head-to-head between Warnock and the winner of Loeffler and Collins’s bitter fight on the right.

QAnon’s fantasies have caused considerable difficulties for Republicans in the 2020 election cycle. Last week Trump declined to denounce the conspiracy theory, praising it for being “strongly against paedophilia”.

On Sunday, the chair of the Republican national committee, Ronna McDaniel, similarly sidestepped questions on QAnon during an appearance on ABC News. Asked if she would condemn it, she replied: “ I knew you were going to ask me that question. I knew it because it’s something the voters are not even thinking about. It’s a fringe group. It’s not part of our party.”

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The Loeffler battle is one of two US Senate races in Georgia that goes to the polls on 3 November. In the second contest, the incumbent Republican David Perdue is in an exceptionally tight fight against the Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Perdue he took the stage at a Trump rally last week and mangled Kamala Harris’s name, which unleashed a flood of almost $2m into Ossoff’s already swollen campaign coffers.

Perdue’s insulting jab also earned a riposte from Doug Emhoff, Harris’s husband. He said: “Let me help what’s-his-face pronounce this: M-V-P. If he can’t remember her name, how about Madam Vice-President?”