Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock will face each other again in a debate Sunday, and this time, they’ll have a national audience.
Georgia’s two high-stakes U.S. Senate runoff races on Jan. 5 will decide which party controls the upper chamber. A pair of wins for Democrats would split control 50-50, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a tie-breaking vote.
Polls continue to show a competitive fight in both races, although a new 11 Alive/SurveyUSA poll shows Warnock with a slightly greater advantage at 52% to Loeffler’s 45%. Democrat Jon Ossoff is locked in a near tie with Sen. David Perdue, with 50% of respondents saying they favored Ossoff and 48% backing Perdue.
The candidates will debate each other the day after President Donald Trump visits Valdosta for a rally meant to fire up the base with just a week or so left until early voting begins. Former President Barack Obama is set to headline a virtual rally for Ossoff and Warnock Friday.
Ossoff, however, will appear alone at the debate. Perdue declined the Atlanta Press Club’s invitation to participate, and it is the organization’s policy to not let one candidate’s absence derail the debate.
Perdue will be represented Sunday with an empty podium. In an op-ed this week, Maria Saporta, who chairs the press club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series committee, offers background on its longstanding empty podium rule (and laments Perdue’s decision).
It’s a rule that is evenly applied. Republican Angela Stanton-King appeared alone in a virtual District 5 congressional debate after Democrat and Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams declined to participate.
“That is not our preference,” the press club said in a press release. “The Atlanta Press Club works hard to provide a platform for all candidates running for public office. We believe it is an essential part of the democratic process for voters to have an opportunity to hear an exchange of ideas from the candidates so they can be better informed when they cast their ballots. In that spirit, we hope Sen. Perdue will change his mind.”
Ossoff and Perdue debated each other twice leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The two first squared off in a spirited showing on a virtual October APC debate, which can be viewed here. They clashed again in late October during a socially distanced in-person debate on WTOC-TV, available on demand here. Perdue pulled out of a third WSB-TV debate set to be held just days before the election.
“The people of Georgia deserve an open debate,” Ossoff told reporters last month. “They deserve to hear from their senator. And if Sen. Perdue doesn’t want to answer questions in public or debate his opponent, that’s fine. He just shouldn’t run for re-election to the United States Senate.”
Perdue’s campaign manager, Ben Fry, said this last month: “We’ve already had two debates in this election. We’re going to take our message about what’s at stake if Democrats have total control of Congress directly to the people.”
Perdue participated in a townhall Thursday hosted by the Laura Ingraham on Fox News that was shot in Atlanta with a small, socially distanced audience. He’s set to appear alongside Trump at the Valdosta rally Saturday.
“(Trump is) excited about coming down and he’s going to deliver this message and that is, ‘Look, we’ve got to protect what we did for four years under this administration’ – if in fact the result is not in his favor – ‘We’ve got to protect it. And the way we do that is to get Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue re-elected.’”
The debates will air live on Georgia Public Broadcasting TV and can also be watched on GPB.org and the press club’s Facebook page. National news networks like CNN, Fox News and CSPAN also plan to carry it.
The Ossoff-Perdue program will start at 5 p.m.; Loeffler and Warnock will debate for an hour starting at 7 p.m.
Photo: Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock are set to face each other again in a debate Sunday. GOP Sen. David Perdue has so far declined to debate his Democratic runoff opponent Jon Ossoff Clockwise from upper left: Loeffler, Warnock, Perdue and Ossoff. Georgia Recorder staff photos