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US ELECTIONS

Georgia Senate race: when are the US election debates?

Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler will go head-to-head against Democratic challenger Reverend Raphael Warnock on Sunday as Georgia takes centre stage.

Update:
Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a rally with US President Donald Trump to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Georgia on December 5, 2020. - President Donald Trump ventures out of Washingt
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDSAFP

US Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler faces off with Democratic challenger Reverend Raphael Warnock on Sunday in what is likely to be their final debate before two Georgia runoff elections that will decide control of the upper chamber of Congress.

Georgia Senate race: the debates

Senator David Perdue, the other Georgia Republican fighting to hold onto his seat on 5 January, has opted out of debating his Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff again ahead of the runoff.

Georgia has not elected a Democratic US senator in 20 years, but President-elect Joe Biden's narrow defeat there of President Donald Trump in the 3 November election has given Democrats hope. They face an uphill battle, though, and will 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 icon Reverend 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 Jeremiah Wright and an infamous 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 health care and other issues.

The debate between Loeffler and Warnock is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT on Monday) at the Atlanta Press Club. It will be shown live on C-Span, CNN and GBT-TV, as well as being livestreamed on CNN.com and the Facebook page of the Atlanta Press Club. Two hours before that, Ossoff will likely appear alone on the debate stage, unless Perdue changes his mind. Ossoff's campaign says Perdue is afraid of facing the Democrat again after their blistering debate on 28 October.

Republican panic in Georgia

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% to 49.3% in last month's election.

That outcome has sparked recriminations among Republicans, with Trump, who has not conceded defeat, blasting Georgia's 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.

Geoff Duncan, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia, said on Sunday he was concerned about Trump's false claims.

'I worry that this continuous fanning of the flames around misinformation puts us in a negative position with regards to the 5 January runoff,' Duncan told CNN. 'The mountains of misinformation are not helping the process. They're only hurting it.'

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 3 November contest, when Warnock got 32.9%, Loeffler took 25.9% and Collins came in at about 20%.

Big money for Georgia Senate race

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 Georgia Senate runoffs through the 5 January election, according to AdImpact, an advertising tracking firm.

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

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice closed a probe into stock trades made by Loeffler and two other senators shortly before market turmoil tied to the coronavirus outbreak, and it shut an inquiry into Perdue's trades in shares of a financial firm without charges, media reported.

Loeffler and Perdue have accused the two Democrats of pursuing 'socialist' policies on climate change and health care, and have sought to tie them to street violence.

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