In Georgia, Loeffler again refuses to say Trump lost

ATLANTA (AP) — Sen. Kelly Loeffler repeatedly refused Sunday to acknowledge that President Donald Trump lost re-election in November, as she debated her Democratic opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, ahead of twin Georgia runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

Asked specifically about President-elect Joe Biden's victory in Georgia and whether she agreed with Trump's unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud, Loeffler sidestepped the matter. "The president has every right to every legal recourse, and that’s what’s taking place,” Loeffler said.

The senator later alleged, without any supporting details, irregularities in the November elections and repeated Trump's right to “legal recourse” without acknowledging that the president's campaign has lost round after round of post-election court challenges, including in Georgia, which has already certified its results.

Her Democratic opponent Warnock blasted the senator for “casting doubt” on a legitimate election. “The people have spoken on the presidential election, and they’re waiting on their senator to be focused on them, not the person in the White House.”

However, Loeffler, again and again, tacitly admitted Trump's defeat by casting the runoffs necessary to prevent a leftward march. ″Everything is at stake in this election, the future of our country,” she said, alluding to the high-stakes battle for control of the Senate.

Loeffler more than a dozen times blasted “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” and hammered the pastor as a socialist who would ensure everything from a government takeover of the U.S. healthcare system to the seizure of Americans’ guns. Warnock, who is not a socialist, countered by blasting Loeffler as a self-interested, uber-wealthy politician who “lied not only on me, but on Jesus” by highlighting and, he said, misrepresenting bits and pieces of sermons he’s delivered over the years.

The battle between Loeffler and Warnock and a second runoff between Republican Sen. David Perdue with Democrat Jon Ossoff will determine which party controls the Senate at the outset of Biden's presidency. Republicans need one seat for a majority. Democrats need a sweep to make Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.

The debate came a day after Trump was in Georgia for a Valdosta rally alongside the two Republican senators. The president repeated his baseless claims that Biden's victory in Georgia and nationally were due to fraud. While Loeffler dodged questions about Trump's defeat, Warnock sidestepped questions about whether he'd support expanding the Supreme Court if Democrats had the power to do so. He said was more interested in coronavirus pandemic relief, but never said explicitly whether he was opposed to adding justices to the high court.

On COVID, the two rivals confirmed their confidence in a vaccine and said they'd take it. But they drew sharp contrasts on another economic aid package. Warnock hammered Loeffler's criticisms earlier this year of some congressional aid. Loeffler blamed Democratic leaders for Congress' failure to pass a new round of aid this fall, and she said Warnock would be a rubber stamp for them in Washington.

In an earlier session Sunday, Ossoff debated an empty podium, hammering Perdue as a “coward” for skipping the debate.

Ossoff suggested Perdue, the first-term Republican whose prolific stock trading has drawn attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, left his podium vacant because he didn’t want to “incriminate himself” over his personal financial activities that the challenger summed up as “cartoonish abuse of power.”

“It shows an astonishing arrogance and sense of entitlement for Georgia’s senior U.S. senator to believe he shouldn’t have to debate at a moment like this in our history,” Ossoff said, criticizing Perdue for avoiding the debate as the coronavirus pandemic rages and Congress continues to be at loggerheads over a new round of economic relief.

Perdue’s campaign manager responded with an email statement that said Ossoff “lost a debate against himself.” The statement did not address any details of Ossoff’s attacks on the senator. Another Perdue aide followed up with a statement emphasizing that “the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee, DOJ and the SEC ... independently cleared Sen. Perdue of any and all wrongdoing.”

The runoffs have put Georgia squarely in the national political spotlight, drawing tens of millions of dollars and a flood of field workers and volunteers from around the country.

The day before Trump's rally, Vice President Mike Pence appeared in Savannah, as former President Barack Obama headlined a virtual rally for Democrats. Biden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992, has promised to visit before the runoff, acknowledging that the outcome will shape the legislative reach of his presidency.

Republicans have embraced the national consequences, framing Ossoff and Warnock as harbingers of a socialist takeover of Washington. Neither are socialists but the GOP wants to stoke its base for a second round of voting with the fear of Democrats controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Democrats already have protected their House majority, and the Republican argument concedes Trump’s loss to Biden, even if the president himself has refused to acknowledge his defeat.

Beyond the national stakes, Ossoff has zeroed in on Perdue’s financial activities. The Associated Press and other media have reported details of key trades Perdue made after members of Congress began receiving classified briefings about COVID-19 but while Perdue and other officials were downplaying its dangers in public. Perdue’s trades also involved companies whose business activities fall under jurisdiction of some of the senator’s committees.

Ossoff brushed aside a moderator’s reminder that Senate ethics officials and the Department of Justice have not found any legal wrongdoing on Perdue’s part.

“His blatant abuse of his power and privilege to enrich himself is disgraceful,” Ossoff said. “He can’t defend the indefensible. ... The standard for our elected officials must be higher than merely evading prosecution.” Both runoffs are required under Georgia state law because no candidate reached 50% in November. Perdue fell just short of defeating Ossoff because a Libertarian candidate won a small slice of the vote, while Warnock led Loeffler in a 20-way field in which no candidate came close to 50%.