U.S. Senate special election debate

ATLANTA — The top contenders in the crowded race for former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson’s seat addressed topics from conspiracy theory QAnon to the President’s pandemic response Monday during a debate.

Appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler took on opponents Congressman Doug Collins, Raphael Warnock, Matt Lieberman, Ed Tarver and Brian Slowinski during the debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club.

The results of the general election will likely lead to a runoff between Warnock and either Loeffler or Collins — who have both been traveling across the state working to drum up GOP support. 

Loeffler and Collins have been locked in a battle throughout the race to prove who is the biggest Donald Trump supporter, pro-life lawmaker and “true conservative.” But their answers were starkly different when asked to address the unfounded conspiracy theory QAnon, that has woven itself into the political cycle this election. 

Marjorie Taylor Greene, QAnon supporter and controversial congressional candidate, endorsed Loeffler last week — another effort by the senator to woo far-right Republican votes. Her appointment by Kemp was initially acknowledged to be an attempt to gain support of moderates and suburban women but her messaging has veered further on the political spectrum.

"I denounce hate groups of all types — on the left and the right” Loeffler said during the debate. "I don't know anything about QAnon.”

Collins and Warnock struck a different tune. Collins said he does not agree with QAnon conspiracy theories nor supports them. Warnock said he “condemns violence” no matter the source.

Candidates had the chance to weigh in on President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic — COVID-19 has sickened more than 8.2 million Americans and killed more than 220,000.

Neither Loeffler nor Collins commented on how the pandemic could have been handled differently but boasted their support of the president.

"I am proud to be the only U.S. Senator with a 100% voting record with President Trump,” Loeffler said.

Lieberman, a Democrat, asked Loeffler if she disagrees with anything Trump has done and she said plainly, “No.”

Collins praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

"Georgia is living proof that you can actually get the economy going and get our state going at the same time as actually making sure that the virus is kept in check,” he said.

Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has garnered increased support during the past few weeks, surpassing his Republican opponents in polls and giving Democrats an increased chance of winning the Senate seat. During the debate, Warnock offered harsh criticism of Trump and noted the administration has yet to develop a national response to curb coronavirus spread. 

“We’re nine months into this pandemic, and the government is not doing what it can do,” he said. "We still haven’t seen a national coordinated response to the pandemic.”

Warnock said to offset the crippling impact of the pandemic on Americans, he would support tax relief measures for lower- and middle-class families as well as a tax hike for people making more than $400,000 a year.

Independent candidate Brian Slowinski called out Loeffler for her rhetoric blaming China for the pandemic saying that blanketed statements blaming the country for the spread of the virus is hateful toward Chinese-Americans. 

"Let me be very clear, I will not be an apologist or a shill for China. China brought this disease to our country,” she said. "We have to hold China accountable they made the (World Health Organization) complicit and it spread around the world.”

Democratic candidates Tarver and Lieberman have been under pressure by the Democratic party to drop out of the special election race and back party favorite Warnock but both have declined.

Both candidates as well as independent Slowinski used the debate as a chance to point to the three frontrunners — Loeffler, Collins and Warnock — as what they said were "typical politicians.”

“We have a chance here to vote for something other than an establishment Democrat or an establishment Republican for the first time in a long time,” Lieberman appealed to voters. "There are more than just two flavors on the menu. For God's sake, don't just pick one of the same two flavors that you don't even like that much in the first place.”

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