Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faced several of her top rivals for the all-comers special election in an Atlanta Press Club debate Monday, Oct. 19.
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Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faced several of her top rivals for the all-comers special election in an Atlanta Press Club debate Monday, Oct. 19.

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faced attacks from both the left and the right during an hourlong virtual debate Monday, as she seeks to hold off Republican Rep. Doug Collins and make it into a likely runoff against Democratic pastor Raphael Warnock.

The Atlanta Press Club debate featured six candidates that received at least 2% in two nonpartisan polls, including Loeffler, Collins, Warnock, Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver and Libertarian Brian Slowinski. 

Loeffler, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson, spent much of her time trying to paint herself as the true conservative choice in the race.

When asked by Lieberman if there was something President Trump said or did that she disagreed with, Loeffler said no, touting her "100% voting record" with the president.

"I've been named the most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate," she said. "I've been endorsed by National Right to Life; that's because I will always stand up for conservative values."

National and local politics-watchers have noted that Loeffler's campaign has shifted further to the right than the moderate stance many Republicans in the state touted when she was first appointed. In recent weeks, she has come under fire for an ad calling herself more conservative than Attila the Hun and for vowing to hold China responsible for the president's coronavirus diagnosis, among other things. 

Some of the change comes from the format of the special election, which pits 20 candidates of all parties against each other on the same ballot. If nobody clears 50%, the top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to a January runoff that could help decide control of the Senate. 

Seeking to leapfrog Loeffler in the polls is Collins, who represents one of the most conservative U.S. House districts in the country. He started the debate by expressing no regrets for a tweet shortly after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg saying "RIP to the 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws."

"That was a perspective of what that position of pro-abortion rights has cost us in this country," he said. "And I've always been pro-life, so I'll never back up on defending life."

Collins, one of Trump's biggest defenders during the impeachment inquiry, scoffed at the notion that Loeffler was more conservative than he was. 

"Sen. Loeffler, maybe your math is wrong — or maybe your cue card is wrong," he said.

Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has seen a meteoric rise in the polls in recent weeks, surpassing both Collins and Loeffler and consolidating most of the Democratic support in a race that the party sees as a chance to flip.

When asked about support for a tax increase for households making more than $400,000 a year, the first-time candidate largely avoided the question and focused on a call for tax relief for lower and middle income families.

"I think those who are making above $400,000 a year could perhaps afford to pay some more taxes," he said. "I'm certainly opposed to the $2 trillion tax cut that Republicans gave to the richest of the rich in 2017."

In the portion of the debate where candidates queried one another, Warnock, Loeffler and Collins took turns prodding one another over hot-button cultural and political issues like QAnon conspiracy theories, defunding the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

One of the more compelling exchanges came between Collins and Loeffler, filled with accusations about "lies" in the attack ads the pair have leveled throughout the campaign.

"Now look, you've said I have no place here, that I'm only here because of my husband, that I should do something I'm qualified for," Loeffler said. "But you know what? You've attacked my hair, my makeup, how I talk, my clothes, where I'm from. You've lied about me, you've lied about my family, and let me tell you, here's the truth: I'm here because I've earned everything I've got."

Collins fired back, calling those accusations lies as well. 

"I've never mentioned anything personally about her features, hair or anything else, but it's amazing what she's talked about me, and that she's spent over $30 million doing it," he said.

Election Day is Nov. 3; early voting runs through Oct. 30.