Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud dominated a tense debate in Georgia ahead of a crucial Senate runoff election as Republican senator Kelly Loeffler refused three times to acknowledge the result of the November ballot, which Trump lost by a convincing electoral college margin and by more than 7m votes.
The future of the US senate hangs on the outcome of the 5 January election in Georgia with the two seats at stake determining whether Republicans or Democrats will hold an effective majority in the upper chamber. The result will play a major role in president-elect Joe Biden’s ability to legislate and govern during his tenure as the next president of the United States.
Loeffler faces Democrat Raphael Warnock in the first race, while incumbent Republican David Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff in the second.
On Sunday Ossoff debated alone next to an empty podium as Perdue declined to partake in the televised debate amid allegations of corruption tied to his stock market trading during the pandemic.
Ossoff argued that Perdue avoided the debate in Atlanta as he did not want to “incriminate himself” over his financial dealings, which include suspiciously timed investments in companies set to benefit from the pandemic.
“It shows an astonishing arrogance and sense of entitlement for Georgia’s senior US senator to believe he shouldn’t have to debate at a moment like this in our history,” Ossoff said.
Both Perdue and Loeffler appeared at a rally held by Donald Trump on Saturday night in south Georgia, ostensibly staged for the president to show his support for both senate candidates, but which saw the outgoing president make repeated baseless claims of election fraud and criticism of Republican state officials who certified a victory for Biden in Georgia.
Although Loeffler and Perdue have not articulated the same baseless conspiracy theories as Trump, like the majority of their Republican colleagues they have not recognized Biden as the president-elect.
On Sunday, Loeffler was asked on numerous occasions whether she believed Trump’s fictitious claims of election fraud and declined to answer directly each time.
She argued that Trump, who has so far lost all meaningful decisions in his numerous legal attempts to subvert the results through the courts, had “every right to every legal recourse” in the election.
Trump lost the state of Georgia, a long time Republican stronghold, by over 12,000 votes in a result that was certified by the Republican secretary of state over two weeks ago.
Loeffler attempted to pivot away from the issue by arguing that Trump had also encouraged his supporters on Saturday to vote for her in January.
“The president was also clear that Georgians need to come out and vote for David Perdue and myself because of what’s at stake,” she said.
Both Republicans candidates face a rhetorical tightrope. On the one hand they are refusing to acknowledge that Biden has won, but on other framing the Georgia Senate race as crucial to prevent Democratic control of government, itself a tacit acknowledgement that Trump has lost the White House.
Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer baptist church in Atlanta, criticised Loeffler for her position, and used one of his own questions in the debate to ask: “Yes or no, Senator Loeffler: did Donald Trump lose the presidential election?”
The senator dodged the answer again.
Loeffler, who is a multi-millionaire, also faces allegations of shady stock market trading tied to the pandemic, hit back by branding Warnock, a centrist Democrat, as a “radical liberal” and at one point asked the pastor to renounce Marxism in public.
Warnock did not engage, and concluded the debate by stating: “It’s dark right now. But morning is on the way. It’s our job, Georgia to put our shoes on and get ready because there are those engaged in the politics of division. They have no vision and so they engage in division.”
Early voting in the Georgia runoff begins on 14 December with polls indicating an extremely tight election in both races.