U.S. Senate race in Georgia intensifies with Supreme Court pick

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

The race for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Georgia kicked up a notch last week with the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and calls for a Democratic candidate to drop out in favor of the frontrunner.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta businesswoman appointed to hold retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until the Nov. 3 special election, released an ad Friday claiming she was “the first senator in America” to back President Donald Trump’s push to nominate a new justice ahead of the upcoming election.

“Our nation desperately needs another pro-life justice who will uphold the Constitution and defend conservative values,” Loeffler said.

The ad also takes aim at her Democratic competitor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has signaled he would vote against Trump’s nominee if he were to win the election outright on Nov. 3 – a tall order given the 50% vote threshold any of the 21 candidates in the race will need to cross.

“If that is the case and I can win outright on Nov. 3, the vote from the senator in Georgia might be the difference between setting an entire generation under an ideologue on the court or giving the American people a chance to weigh in,” Warnock said in an interview.

And U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican from Gainesville who has bludgeoned Loeffler with campaign attacks for months, stirred controversy by criticizing Ginsburg’s court opinions on abortion within hours after her death on Sept. 18.

“RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws,” Collins wrote on Twitter.

Ginsburg’s death has catapulted the race for Loeffler’s seat even further into the national spotlight, given the victor could not only tip the balance between conservative and liberal justices on the nation’s highest court, but also decide which party holds a majority in the Senate.

Recent polls have shown Loeffler and Collins running neck-and-neck in the low to mid-20% range, with Warnock creeping up close to them within a few percentage points as his profile elevates with new ads, support from sports figures and his potential influence on the Supreme Court nominee.

It’s for that reason Democratic leaders in Georgia like former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have renewed calls for candidate Matt Liberman to drop out and unify support for one Democratic candidate in the free-for-all race, in which candidates from all parties will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But Lieberman, a health-care consultant and former educator who is the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has signaled he does not intend to exit the race due to the large number of undecided voters who might break his way on Election Day.

“It’s been a tight race the whole time,” Lieberman said in a recent interview. “Obviously, [Warnock] has every advantage and he should have pulled away, but he hasn’t.”

Meanwhile, Loeffler drew attention last week for a pair of ads she released calling herself “more conservative” than the 5th-century warlord Attila the Hun. The ads marked the latest move in the fight between Collins and Loeffler to win the title of most conservative candidate as they seek to woo Republican voters.

“The liberal snowflakes of the world melted when they found out that conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler was to the right of Attila the Hun,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson. “Now that we’re releasing a second ad highlighting Kelly’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump values, we assume they will probably evaporate.”

In recent months, Loeffler has filed a steady stream of legislation in the Senate focused on immigration enforcement, punishing violent protesters, protecting funds for police agencies and gun-ownership rights. She has also criticized the Black Lives Matter protest movement as she seeks to solidify her image as a pro-law enforcement candidate.

Collins, meanwhile, has long touted his background as a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain and the son of a Georgia state trooper, emphasizing his law-and-order roots, support for gun-ownership rights and opposition to abortion.

He has also begun firing shots at Warnock, who has largely escaped criticism from Republican contenders in the race as they batter each other. Collins highlighted a recent segment by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that points outs comments Warnock made criticizing police officers while preaching at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he presides as senior pastor.

“Tucker Carlson exposed the hatred for our police from Stacey Abrams’ handpicked candidate for Senate, Mr. Warnock,” Collins said on Twitter. “In the Senate, I’ll continue to back the blue.”

While the Fox News segment featured comments from 2015 describing certain officers as “thugs”, Warnock in a recent interview said he supports officers overall but would vote in the Senate for uniform use-of-force-standards, abolishing qualified immunity and creating a third-party independent body to investigate officer-involved fatal encounters.

“We have got to have public policy that centers on the humanity of black people,” Warnock said. “Black people don’t want more than anyone else. We just want equal treatment under the law.”

Loeffler has made support for law enforcement central to her campaign, capitalizing on broad negative reaction from many conservative voters over instances of violence and vandalism seen during protests against police brutality and racial injustice since June.

She particularly has taken strong stances against calls from some advocates and lawmakers to reduce funding for police departments, going so far as to introduce legislation that would yank federal dollars from cities that shrink their police budgets.

“For months, the radical Left’s ‘defund the police’ movement has promoted violence, chaos and anarchy in cities across our country, while villainizing and attacking the brave men and women in law enforcement who risk their lives to keep us safe,” Loeffler said this month.

As Loeffler and Collins trade blows, Warnock has sought to elevate health care as among the most important issues in the race. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened health-care inequality in communities and acts as proof of the need for expanded access to Medicare and universal insurance coverage, Warnock has said.

“We don’t suffer from a lack of resources,” Warnock said. “We suffer from a lack of political will and moral imagination.”

On the health-care front, Loeffler has focused much of her early activities in the Senate on efforts to block federal funds from groups that provide abortions like Planned Parenthood and to boost access to health-care services for military veterans.

Collins, who has frequently expressed opposition to the Affordable Care Act, aligns with Loeffler and the prevailing Republican stance that favors expanding options for securing health insurance with less government influence on the marketplace.

“Even if you thought it was a good idea to start with, it’s not being funded,” Collins said recently of the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve got to get back to a system that protects pre-existing conditions.”

Amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate race is steaming for the finish line with less than 40 days until the special election. A runoff will be held in January if none of the 21 candidates including Loeffler can win more than 50% of the vote.

Issues Box

In their own words, he is how Loeffler, Collins and Warnock stand on some key issues:

On health insurance and the Affordable Care Act:

LOEFFLER: “I believe the solution [to health care costs] is not a government-run system that would get rid of employer-provided insurance, shutter our hospitals and raise taxes on the middle class.”

COLLINS: “[The Affordable Care Act] has basically become the anchor that floats off the back of the boat, slowing everything down and causing problems.”

WARNOCK: “[Universal health care] is for me a human right and it is certainly something that the richest nation in the world can and should provide for all its citizens.”

On the impacts of COVID-19 and the continuing economic recovery:

LOEFFLER: “The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, and the federal response has been in full force to help provide relief.”

COLLINS: “Georgia in particular is an example for other parts of the country to say we can get back out of this and have a get-well mentality instead of a get-sick mentality.”

WARNOCK: “I think we have to remind people that our response is out of love and not out of fear. It is a way of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. And I think we ought to embody that in public policy.”

On law enforcement and police reforms amid nationwide protests:

LOEFFLER: “American cities, businesses and livelihoods are being destroyed as a result of violent rioters and looters. Enough is enough. The violence must stop, and it’s time to hold these criminals and vandals accountable.”

COLLINS: “The training aspect is something that’s more prevalent that we need to look at, at all levels of law enforcement. There are always going to be those moments … when you don’t know what you’re walking into and you have to make a life-or-death decision.”

WARNOCK: “Black people are dying. There’s a human toll that I think we cannot lose sight of in all of this.”

On immigration reform, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and border protection:

LOEFFLER: “For years under the Obama administration, our Southern border was left exposed, incentivizing the flow of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs into our country. President Donald Trump has taken swift action to reverse this trend and prioritized building the border wall to protect Americans and keep our nation safe.”

COLLINS: “I think there’s ways we could fix [DACA] if we could have a more honest conversation.”

WARNOCK: “People need a dignified path to citizenship. What I would abolish is the dehumanization of people.”

Drop boxes for absentee ballots roll out in Georgia ahead of Nov. 3 election

Drop boxes to deposit absentee ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 general election have been set up by the dozens across Georgia as an option for voters who prefer not to show up in-person at a polling place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First rolled out for the June 9 primaries, the secure drop boxes have been installed in roughly three-fourths of Georgia’s 159 counties over the past few months. They are located on government properties like county elections offices, courthouses, city halls and local commissions.

  • View a map of drop box locations here.

So far, around 1.2 million Georgians have requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election, according to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. State election officials expect to see record turnout for the coronavirus-troubled election.

Many of those asking for absentee ballots were voters who voted by mail for the primaries in June and opted to automatically receive an absentee ballot for November. Others have used the state’s new online portal to request a mail-in ballot.

The drop-box option has been pitched as a way to motivate more Georgians to vote early in the general election rather than flood polling places on Election Day. Officials expect long lines even with a large vote-by-mail and early voting campaign.

The drop boxes are anchored to the ground, monitored by constant surveillance video and can only be opened by a team of two poll workers. They will be emptied at least once every 72 hours until Oct. 26, after which they will be emptied every 24 hours.

Beyond the drop boxes, county election officials will be able to scan absentee ballots starting two weeks before Election Day to help tabulate huge numbers of ballots more easily.

Casting ballots early should help “relieve that pressure valve” poised for local polling places for in-person voting, Raffensperger said this week.

“Everyone is working together to make sure we have as smooth a process as possible,” Raffensperger said.

Line tracker, tech support aim to smooth hurdles in Nov. 3 election in Georgia

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia election officials gearing up for the Nov. 3 general election will have help from big-name companies to troubleshoot technical issues and a new real-time tool that tracks the wait in line at local polling places.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told members of the Atlanta Press Club Tuesday the new real-time tracker will let voters see wait times on Election Day and help officials pinpoint any polling places that may be experiencing issues so they can be resolved.

Raffensperger’s office is also working with groups like the Coca-Cola Company and AT&T to train employees as technical-support workers able to diagnose and fix issues that crop up with voting machines on Election Day.

Those initiatives, combined with a push to recruit thousands of poll workers and the launch of an online portal to request absentee ballots, are creating confidence that Georgia may see a better Election Day experience in November than occurred in the line-plagued June 9 primary.

“We have a very robust plan of action for the November election cycle,” Raffensperger said Tuesday. “I think we’re much better prepared.”

Georgia is poised for record voter turnout in the Nov. 3 general election with a presidential contest, two U.S. Senate seats, congressional, state and local offices all on the ballot.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also inspiring huge interest in absentee ballots. So far, around 1.1 million Georgians have requested mail-in ballots and started receiving them this week.

Along with masks and gloves for poll workers, local precincts will feature new plexiglass screens purchased and donated by companies that aim to add more of a buffer between poll workers and voters for social distancing.

Companies like Coca-Cola, AT&T, Delta Air Lines and the Atlanta Hawks are working with the nonpartisan group GaVotingWorks to provide tech support, donate plexiglass screens and purchase more absentee ballot drop-off boxes for counties.

Jennifer Dorian, the co-founder of GaVotingWorks, said the collaborative effort reflects a growing interest among companies to participate in civic duty by pitching in more resources during the virus-troubled election cycle.

“We’re finding companies are a vital resource that can talk to employees as well as all Georgians,” Dorian said Tuesday.

Early voting for the general election starts Oct. 12. The online portal to request an absentee ballot is found at https://ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov/.

Loeffler slammed by Florida congressman, Collins ally in U.S. Senate race in Georgia

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (right) attends a rally for the U.S. Senate campaign of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (left in crowd) at the Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta on Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, barreled into the contentious free-for-all race in Georgia for a U.S. Senate seat Friday by slamming the current Republican officeholder, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Rallying with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Gainesville Republican aiming to unseat Loeffler, Gaetz riled up a raucous crowd at the Cobb County GOP headquarters by calling Loeffler a “country club” Republican who owed her seat to a governor’s appointment and wealthy background.

“I understand that Kelly Loeffler has a lot of money,” Gaetz said at Friday’s rally. “[But] a seat in the United States Senate should not be a reverse dowry paid in the greatest country in the world.”

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman who stepped down from the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange to run her campaign, was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until the Nov. 3 special election.

Her campaign quickly punched back against Collins on Friday, noting Loeffler has enjoyed several recent polls that show her holding an edge over the four-term congressman.

“The reason Doug’s losing is because he’s a failed career politician who spends every waking second – including today – lying about Kelly’s record while he looks for his next taxpayer funded paycheck,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler held a campaign rally at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters in Marietta on Aug. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

It’s not the first time the Florida congressman has waded into Georgia’s senate race. Gaetz previously jabbed with Kemp’s aides on Twitter last December over the governor’s pick in Loeffler after it became known Collins also wanted the seat.

Collins and Gaetz forged ties as among President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters during impeachment proceedings late last year, when both Republicans served on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Loeffler, who as a new senator voted against impeachment in February, has embraced the support of Georgia’s governor. Kemp joined her on the campaign trail earlier this month and was featured prominently in a new campaign ad released this week.

“She’s not a politician, not a political insider,” Kemp says in the ad. “She has earned my vote.”

The race for Loeffler’s seat has been dominated by her intra-party battle with Collins, both of whom are vying to woo Republican voters by positioning themselves as the most conservative choice and Trump’s favored candidate.

Since taking office in January, Loeffler has filed several conservative-focused bills that home in on immigration enforcement, punishing violent protesters, protecting funds for police agencies and gun-ownership rights. She has also criticized the Black Lives Matter protest movement as she seeks to solidify her image as a pro-law enforcement candidate.

But her campaign was dinged in March following reports of controversial stock trades made as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up. Loeffler said she was not involved in the trades directly and has stressed that a federal investigation found no wrongdoing.

Collins, a military chaplain, has seized onto the stock-trade issue and Loeffler’s co-ownership of a women’s professional basketball team – particularly its participation in a promotion supporting Planned Parenthood – as fuel to portray Loeffler as less conservative than himself.

“You are the fake [and] I am the real conservative,” Collins said Friday, also noting her past campaign donations to U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney who has become a conservative punching bag for breaking ranks with Trump.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (right) speaks during a rally for his U.S. Senate campaign attended by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (left in crowd) at the Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta on Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Meanwhile, Georgia Democratic leaders scoffed at Friday’s campaign stop by Gaetz, calling him and Collins “two (unethical) peas in a pod” who have drawn complaints over alleged flouting of certain U.S. House ethics rules.

Collins has come under scrutiny for using videos of U.S. House floor broadcasts in his campaign ads and social-media content, which may run afoul of congressional ethics rules. His campaign has dismissed the complaint, arguing the videos in question contained footage used in television news segments and not official House broadcasts via C-SPAN.

Gaetz faced an ethics inquiry into questions surrounding whether he improperly used taxpayer money to rent an office space from a friend and campaign donor. That inquiry was recently closed without any evidence of wrongdoing.

“It’s nice to see that Congressman Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz have been able to bond so well over their shared history of potential ethics violations,” said Alex Floyd, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, the establishment-backed Democratic senate candidate challenging Loeffler and Collins, has recently launched several new campaign ads and kept up a steady schedule of virtual appearances with local leaders across Georgia as he pushes to elevate his profile with less than 50 days until the election.

Around 20 candidates including Loeffler will all be on the ballot for the open-party Nov. 3 special election. A runoff will be held in January if no candidate gains more than 50% of votes, which is likely.

This story has been revised to clarify details on the ethics inquiry concerning U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Issues with Georgia’s June 9 primary detailed in state House inquiry

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A state House committee probing issues that occurred during the June 9 primary elections in Georgia released a report Thursday outlining stumbles with absentee ballots and the state’s new voting machines that prompted long lines and steep concerns ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

The report, compiled by the Georgia House Governmental Affairs Committee, recommended tighter coordination between the Secretary of State’s office and local elections boards to prevent and respond to problems, as well as extending the amount of time local officials have to count absentee ballots.

The House committee’s report followed four days of testimony in June and August from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, his staff, poll workers, county election officials, poll watchers and state lawmakers.

More than 1.6 million Georgians applied for absentee ballots ahead of the primary after state officials decided to send every registered voter an application form for the primary, which led to a historically huge number of mail-in votes.

But many voters testified to not receiving their absentee ballots at all after requesting them, according to the House report. In some cases, applications were sent to deceased voters or to incorrect addresses.

Voters who applied for absentee ballots but chose to vote in-person on Election Day also contributed to long lines since they had to formally cancel their mail-in ballots prior to voting at a polling place, the report noted.

Raffensperger’s office has repeatedly attributed the brunt of absentee-ballot issues to Fulton County election officials who were overwhelmed with a wave of mail-in requests and struggled to process ballots on Election Day.

Additionally, the House report released Thursday included testimony on printer failures, ballot scanners and “general malfunctions” with the state’s new voting machines.

The primary elections marked the biggest tests of the new $104 million ballot-marking devices that rolled out earlier this year after the General Assembly passed legislation requiring that the state’s old voting machines be replaced.

According to the House report, insufficient training for poll workers on the new machines ahead of the election led to issues involving delays with troubleshooting the machines and “a lack of clear instruction for machine usage” during the primary.

The COVID-19 pandemic also threw a major wrench into the equation, the report found. With fewer poll workers and voting locations, plus unsure training for some workers, the health concerns caused by the virus “contributed to less training opportunities and longer waits on Election Day,” the report says.

“Many of the issues caused by COVID-19 served to compound the other delays and problems that were reported from Election Day,” the report says.

The report recommends local election officials create contingency plans ahead of elections and coordinate more closely with the Secretary of State’s office to improve training. Local officials should be allowed to count absentee ballots at the start of early voting, the report recommends.

It also recommends making sure each polling place has enough electricity to handle their voting machines, creating an absentee-ballot tracking program to reduce the need for in-person cancellations and requiring polling places to have paper ballots on hand in case of equipment issues.

The general election on Nov. 3 is poised for much larger turnout than the primaries with a presidential contest, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, Congressional, state and local offices all on the ballot.

Raffensperger’s office is pushing to increase the number of poll workers to reduce the chances for the sort of long lines and know-how issues that were seen in the June 9 primaries.

Absentee ballots have started being mailed out to voters who requested them for the Nov. 3 election. Early voting begins Oct. 12.

Georgia secretary of state faces backlash over double-voting claims

Georgia’s top elections official is facing backlash from voting rights groups and a former secretary of state over allegations he made this week on double voting in the state’s June 9 primary.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held a news conference Tuesday to announce his office had launched investigations into 1,000 alleged instances of people intentionally voting twice in the primaries: once by absentee ballot and once in person on Election Day.

Raffensperger presented no evidence to support the double-voting allegations and stressed the investigation was in its early stages, leading several voter advocates to slam the Republican secretary of state for going public with the claims before bringing proof of wrongdoing.

Former Secretary of State Cathy Cox on Wednesday called Raffensperger’s announcement “highly irregular” and “improper”, and suggested his actions aimed to “sow chaos and cast doubt” on mail-in voting ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

Cox, a Democrat who served as Georgia’s elections chief from 1999 to 2007, said typically investigations into voter fraud involve oversight from the state board of elections and are not directed entirely by the secretary of state. She said Raffensperger “seems to have already pre-judged these matters.”

“We don’t know those facts because there has been no investigation to this point,” Cox said in a news conference Wednesday.

“Instead, we had a secretary of state who jumped to the conclusion that a thousand people had committed a crime and would be prosecuted.”

Raffensperger’s office batted back criticism Wednesday and argued the only aim of the investigation is to curb chances for double voting.

“For Secretary Cox to say we shouldn’t investigate 1,000 attempts to steal an election is ridiculous and tone deaf to the needs of election integrity,” said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.

This election season has seen vote-by-mail skyrocket in Georgia amid health concerns brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The primary elections in June drew historic numbers of absentee ballots. The upcoming general election is also poised for huge mail-in voting turnout.

Raffensperger did not outline Tuesday how his office might know for certain that 1,000 people intentionally voted twice, other than to note that “we know one person was bragging about it down in Long County.”

He said around 150,000 voters applied for absentee ballots for the June primaries, then showed up to vote in person. Of those, he claimed 1,000 voters intentionally cast an absentee ballot before voting in person without first canceling their absentee ballots on Election Day as is required.

“We’ll be investigating all 1,000 [double-voting allegations] and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Raffensperger said at Tuesday’s news conference.

He added results from the investigation should be ready “in the next couple of weeks.”

Shortly after, the Democratic Party of Georgia’s executive director accused Raffensperger of pushing “voting conspiracy theories and disinformation” that threatened to undermine confidence in the upcoming election’s integrity.

Raffensperger’s announcement was also called “a deliberate distraction” by the Georgia Voter Empowerment Task Force, a voting-rights group composed of representatives from several other groups including the NAACP and Fair Fight Action, which was set up by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.

“Under his so-called leadership and the ‘meltdown’ of an election over which he presided, Georgians faced barriers in casting their votes and having their votes counted,” the task force said in a statement. “Now, unsurprisingly, Georgia’s failed top elections official has decided to push a right-wing narrative spreading across the country rather than focusing on protecting the Constitutional rights of every Georgian.”

The Georgia chapter of the ACLU also urged anyone “threatened with prosecution” over double-voting allegations to contact them for legal assistance.