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Fact-checking Georgia's senatorial debate between Loeffler and Warnock

CNN logo CNN 12/8/2020 By Tara Subramaniam and Holmes Lybrand, CNN
calendar: Sen. Kelly Loeffler, left, and Democratic challenger for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock, second from left, appear during a debate Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, Pool) © Ben Gray/Pool/AP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, left, and Democratic challenger for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock, second from left, appear during a debate Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, Pool)

With the presidential election technically over, all eyes are now on Georgia. Not only has the state's election process led to Republican infighting, but Georgia is also set to host two runoff elections that will determine control of the US Senate.

Two of the four senatorial candidates, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, debated each other Sunday, a month before the election.

The debate, hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, featured sharp attacks on both sides and a handful of false or misleading claims. Here is a rundown of some of them with more to come.

Issues in the election

In a Georgia rally the day before, President Donald Trump showed his support for the Republican senatorial candidates and continued to falsely claim the election was rigged. When asked during the debate whether she agreed with the President, Loeffler responded "it's very clear that there were issues in this election."

Facts First: That's not true. Federal, state, local and private election officials have called this election the most secure in US history. There is no evidence of any significant improprieties either in Georgia or in any other state. Georgia's secretary of state said he has not seen evidence of widespread voter fraud though the state continues to systematically investigate any potential claims.

"We have ongoing investigations but we've not seen something widespread of a large nature," Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told CNN in November.

Fidel Castro

Presenting Warnock as a "radical liberal," Loeffler said "he invited Fidel Castro into his own church."

Facts First: This is misleading, at best.

In 1995, Fidel Castro was invited to speak before the congregation at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York where Warnock was a youth pastor at the time, according to the Warnock campaign. However, Warnock insists he had no role in the decision to invite Castro.

Responding to Loeffler's allegations in the debate Warnock said, "I never met him, I never invited him. He has nothing to do with me."

Loeffler's support

Warnock claimed Loeffler "welcomed the support of a QAnon conspiracy theorist and she sat down with a White supremacist for an interview."

Facts First: This needs context.

Warnock's comments likely refer to newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has previously promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, and Jack Posobiec, a right-wing activist who has tweeted anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements.

In July, Loeffler was interviewed by Posobiec, who had gained a national profile after criticizing what he perceived as a lack of "national media outrage" over shootings in Chicago during the same 2017 weekend that Charlottesville, Virginia, became a national flashpoint for White supremacist violence. Trump has amplified Posobiec's posts over the years. Posobiec told CNN, "I have always fully repudiated the KKK and White nationalists and their vile ideology of hatred and bigotry."

Loeffler did welcome Greene's endorsement in October, saying she was "thrilled to know I've got a strong, conservative champion that's going to be fighting right alongside with me." However, Loeffler and Greene have both tried to downplay any connection to QAnon, with Greene telling Fox News in August that QAnon "wasn't part of my campaign" and that once she "started finding misinformation," she "chose another path."

Warnock's arrest

During part of the debate where the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Loeffler claimed Warnock was arrested for obstructing police in a child abuse investigation.

Facts First: This needs context.

Media reports from 2002 show Warnock was indeed arrested but a judge ultimately dropped the charges after a prosecutor clarified there had been some miscommunication.

"The truth is he was protecting the rights of young people to make sure they had a lawyer or a parent when being questioned," Warnock campaign spokesperson Terrence Clark told CNN. "Law enforcement officials later praised him for his help in this investigation."

Gangsters and thugs

Loeffler claimed Warnock "said police officers are gangsters and thugs."

Facts First: This needs context.

Loeffler's claim is likely a reference to a 2015 sermon in which Warnock said some of the police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown had been shot and killed by police the year before, had been "showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality."

However, Warnock's campaign said his comments were directed at the specific incident and the behavior of some of those involved, not all police officers in general.

Israel

Loeffler claimed Warnock "called Israel an apartheid state" to paint him as divisive.

Facts First: This is misleading.

After a religious pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine, a delegation of American and South African clergy members, including Warnock, issued a statement reflecting on the trip. As one of four examples the church leaders shared of "patterns that seem to have been borrowed and perfected from other previous oppressive regimes," the statement did say militarization of the West Bank was "reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa."

In an op-ed published in the Jewish Insider, Warnock clarified his stance on Israel, writing, "Claims that I believe Israel is an apartheid state are patently false -- I do not believe that."

Gun tax

In the debate, Loeffler claimed that Democrats want to "tax guns."

Facts First: This is correct. Some Democrats have proposed legislation to place additional taxes on firearm sales.

When asked what the senator was referring to, Loeffler's deputy campaign manager Stephen Lawson pointed us to a USA Today fact check on two Democratic gun control bills proposed early this year.

Rep. Henry Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, introduced the legislation in the House on January 30 and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced the Senate version on February 5.

Both bills propose a sales tax of 30% on guns and a 50% tax on ammunition with the expressed goal of "end[ing] the epidemic of gun violence."

Defund the police

Pushing back against false accusations that he supports defunding the police, Warnock suggested it was Loeffler who wanted to do so, claiming she voted against the Community Oriented Policing Services program that provides federal funds for hiring and training officers involved in community policing.

"I want to point out that Kelly Loeffler actually voted to defund the police," Warnock said. "She voted against the COPS program. She was one of only ten United States senators who did."

To support his claim, Warnock's campaign website notes that Loeffler was one of 10 senators -- including Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and other notable Republicans -- who, on September 30, voted against the spending bill that passed in the House and Senate and that President Donald Trump signed on October 1.

Facts First: Warnock's claim is highly misleading. Loeffler voted against a short-term spending bill to keep the federal government funded through December 11 and avoid a government shutdown, which included an extension of funding for the COPS program.

Loeffler did not vote specifically to defund the police or get rid of the COPS program. She voted against a stopgap spending bill which pushes larger budget debates down the road.

Warnock's campaign argued that if the vote had gone her way, the funding for the program would not have been extended through the end of the year and the end result would have been defunding a police program. Even if that was not Loeffler's intent, the Warnock campaign believes she should be held accountable for her votes.

This story has been updated.

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