Loeffler and Warnock face off, while Ossoff debates on empty stage with Perdue absent

ATLANTA — Voters got a chance to hear from three of the four candidates running for Georgia’s two Senate seats as what happens here on Jan. 5 will decide who controls the U.S. Senate.

In what made for a strange-looking debate stage, Democrat Jon Ossoff stood next to an empty podium to answer questions from the debate panel and moderator.

His opponent, Republican Sen. David Perdue, opted not to participate. Ossoff used the time to criticize Perdue’s lack of attendance as well as his response to the coronavirus.

“So arrogant that he disregarded public health expertise and so arrogant that he’s not with us here today to answer questions,” Ossoff said.

While Perdue was not there, his campaign did issue a statement once the first debate was over:

“Tonight we witnessed something we didn’t know was possible: a candidate lost a debate against himself. An epic failure. Jon Ossoff came out in support of blanket amnesty, a national lockdown, and made clear he doesn’t want to ‘get bogged down in the details’ about additional COVID relief. These are serious times and Jon Ossoff just showed how unserious -- and unprepared -- he really is. Georgians will reject Jon Ossoff once again next month.”

But the other Senate candidates Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock were there for the second debate.

Both answered questions about the pandemic and a potential stimulus package.

Loeffler dodged questions about President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election and his criticism of Gov. Brian Kemp, the man who appointed her to the Senate.

“It’s very clear that there were issues in this election. There were 250 investigations opened including an investigation into one of my opponent’s organizations. You know, for voter fraud,” Loeffler said.

Warnock meanwhile dodged his own questions on whether he would support a plan to pack the U.S. Supreme Court and defended himself against Loeffler’s accusations of backing a radical socialist agenda.

“Look, it’s clear to me that my opponent is going to work really hard, spending millions of dollars of her own money trying to push a narrative about me because she’s clearly decided that she does not have a case to be made for why she should stay in that seat,” Warnock said.

GEORGIA VOTER GUIDE:

Both campaigns issued statements Sunday night declaring victory in the debate.

“Tonight Senator Kelly Loeffler reminded Georgians that she is a proven leader who will continue to deliver results for Georgia families, and at the same time, Raphael Warnock showed us just how radical he really is,” the Loeffler campaign said in a statement. “He refused to answer simple questions about obstructing a police investigation into suspected child abuse, and he could not answer if he would pack the court. If given the chance, he would destroy our economy, raise our taxes, and turn America into a socialist country. Make no mistake: Raphael Warnock is the most dangerous and radical candidate in America. He would stand with Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the far-left in their plot to ‘change America.’ Georgians should stand with Kelly Loeffler, who will continue to fight tirelessly for Georgia families and for our conservative values.”

“Reverend Raphael Warnock scored a clear victory in tonight’s Senate runoff debate, talking to Georgians about the issues that matter to them like access to health care and building back our economy,” the Warnock campaign said in a statement. “But while Reverend Warnock delivered a commanding performance that spoke to all of Georgia, Senator Kelly Loeffler once again resorted to ugly and false attacks instead of trying to defend her toxic record. From her coronavirus stock trading to her numerous conflicts of interest in the Senate, Georgians have had enough of Kelly Loeffler’s corrupt self-dealing, and are ready to support a candidate like Reverend Warnock who will put Georgia first — not themselves.”

The runoffs will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, prompting a huge wave of money and organizing effort trying to get Georgians to vote again on or before Jan. 5.

Republicans currently hold a 50-48 edge in the Senate, but if Democrats win both races, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tiebreaking vote in the incoming Joe Biden administration, giving Democrats control. Republicans will retain their current majority even if they win only one of the two races.

In both races, a runoff is 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%.

The Republicans are attacking their Democratic opponents as socialists and radicals, saying giving control to the party would lead to unacceptable consequences. Democrats are attacking the stock trading activity of Perdue and Loeffler, saying it proves the two are rich people who care more for their own pocketbooks than for people suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loeffler and Perdue rallied Saturday in Valdosta with Trump, who came to the state to support the candidates despite continuing questions over whether Trump’s unproven attacks on Georgia’s presidential balloting will cause some of his Republican supporters to shy away from voting in the runoffs.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger continued to defend the integrity of the presidential election Sunday. As a Republican, Raffensperger said on ABC’s “This Week” that he wants Loeffler and Perdue to do well even though they both called for him to be removed from office, echoing Trump.

“These distractions, this disunity, it does make it more difficult,” Raffensperger said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.