Georgia’s television viewers have been inundated with attack ads lambasting the four candidates in the state’s two critical Senate runoff elections.
One race pits Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock. The other pits Republican incumbent David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Republicans have focused their barrage on Warnock, a prominent Black pastor they are trying to portray as an anti-police radical leftist. Warnock’s campaign and its allies have fired back with ads trying to portray Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, as corrupt and out of touch.
There are so many ads running in Georgia right now – nearly than $400 million worth of ad spending has been booked between November 10 and election day on January 5, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data – that we can’t possibly assess all of them.
But let’s take a look at some of the ads that are airing most frequently in the slugfest between Loeffler and Warnock.
Warnock’s comments about Ferguson
An ad from Loeffler’s campaign claims that “Raphael Warnock called police thugs and gangsters.” An ad from a Republican Super PAC, American Crossroads, makes a similar claim, saying that Warnock “compared” police officers to thugs and gangsters.
Facts First: Both of the ads omit important context: Warnock was specifically criticizing abusive police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, not talking about police officers generally, in the 2015 remarks to which the ads appear to be referring.
Warnock is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. In a March 2015 sermon in which he discussed power, poverty and race, he urged parishioners to read a Justice Department report on policing in Ferguson, which had been released earlier that week. The report said the Ferguson police department and municipal court system had routinely violated the constitutional rights of Black residents, in part through a punitive system of fines for minor infractions.
Warnock said that the federal report “talks about the use of police force and police violence to crush the poor.” He continued minutes later, “In Ferguson: police power showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality.”
Warnock went on: “You know, you can wear all kinds of colors and be a thug. You can sometimes wear the colors of the state and behave like a thug. People get these violations and then they don’t show up to court because they gotta go to work, trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, and it’s just a small moving violation, and then they tack on interest and fees on top of that, all with the threat of jail time.”
Warnock had made similar comments about police abuses earlier in the sermon, when he spoke about how civil rights icon C.T. Vivian was assaulted in Selma, Alabama in 1965 by the local sheriff, Jim Clark. Warnock called Clark “a ruffian dressed up in the uniform of the state, the embodiment of mob violence authorized by state power.”
Warnock and defunding the police
The same American Crossroads ad attempts to link Warnock to the “defund the police” movement.
The ad’s narrator says, “National defund-the-police radicals are flocking to Georgia to support Warnock. He’s backed by anti-police extremists because he’s one of them.”
The ad does not explicitly say Warnock wants to defund the police, but it at least hints that he does.
Facts First: It is true that Warnock is being supported by progressive groups that have advocated defunding the police, but Warnock himself has consistently opposed the idea; he has called instead for reforms to policing. Also, it’s misleading to suggest that the groups supporting Warnock are newly appearing in the state: the groups the ad mentions were active in Georgia politics well before he announced his candidacy in January.
Warnock has been clear for months that he does not support defunding the police. For example, as FactCheck.org noted in November, he said in a radio interview in June: “Well, I do not believe that we should defund the police. I do believe that we should responsibly fund law enforcement. We need to reimagine policing and reimagine the relationships between law enforcement and communities. We certainly need to demilitarize the police, so that we can rebuild trust between the police and the community.”
In small print, the American Crossroads ad cited three progressive organizations – Democracy for America, MoveOn and the Working Families Party – as evidence for its claim that supporters of police defunding are “flocking to Georgia to support Warnock.” All three entities have indeed expressed support for defunding the police along with other changes, all three are indeed backing Warnock and Ossoff, and all three do have out-of-state volunteers who are supporting the Democrats in various ways.
But the language in the ad, about national supporters of police defunding “flocking” to Georgia in support of Warnock, insinuates that these progressive groups are outsiders who suddenly showed up in the state out of ideological affinity with Warnock on the issue of policing. That is not true.
“Democracy for America hasn’t ‘flocked’ to Georgia to support Rev. Raphael Warnock, we’ve been in the state for years,” Charles Chamberlain, the group’s chair, said in an email. “We have 30,142 members in Georgia and, in addition to being one of Rev. Warnock’s early supporters, we’ve backed numerous elected leaders in the state over our 16-year history, including endorsing Stacey Abrams on Day One of her 2018 gubernatorial campaign.”
Chamberlain added: “Rev. Raphael Warnock has been exceedingly clear that he wants to reform and reimagine policing, not defund it. Period. End of story.”
Britney Whaley, Working Families Party senior political strategist, said in an email that “local activists began building the Georgia Working Families Party in 2017 to support Stacey Abrams’ successful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial primary.”
Warnock and Fidel Castro
An ad from the Loeffler campaign claims that Warnock “hosted a rally for communist dictator Fidel Castro.”
Facts First: This is misleading at best; there is no evidence Warnock personally hosted Castro. In 1995, Castro spoke and was cheered at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, where Warnock, then in his mid-20s, was a youth pastor. There is no proof Warnock had any role in the decision to invite Castro to speak; PolitiFact noted that Warnock was not on the dais when Castro was introduced.
Warnock said of Castro at a December debate with Loeffler: “I never met him, I never invited him. He has nothing to do with me.”
Loeffler and stocks
An ad from a Democratic Super PAC, Georgia Honor, attacks Loeffler over a series of stock trades in January and February.
The ad alleges that Loeffler had advance knowledge about the dangers of the coronavirus, because she had received a private government briefing on January 24, but “protected her stock portfolio” rather than protecting the public – selling “up to $3 million of stock” but telling Americans that “everything was fine.”
A graphic in the style of a newspaper headline says, “Investigated for ‘insider trading.’”
Facts First: While Loeffler was indeed investigated, the ad leaves out important context by not mentioning the outcome of the investigations. The Justice Department and Senate Ethics Committee closed their inquiries without laying charges or otherwise alleging any wrongdoing.
In May, CNN reported that the Justice Department had ended its investigation into Loeffler’s trading and the trading of two other senators who had significant transactions before the pandemic-related crash. In June, the Senate Ethics Committee said in a letter to Loeffler that it did not find evidence her actions broke federal law, Senate rules or conduct standards.
It is not clear that Loeffler had any role in deciding to sell the stocks. She says that all of the sales were made by the third-party investment advisers who handle her portfolio without her involvement, and that she did not even know about the trades until after they were completed.
“I have no involvement in these decisions. I don’t have conversations with them about any of this,” she said on CNBC in March.
Loeffler’s federal disclosure filings say she and her husband Jeffrey Sprecher sold between $1.28 million and $3.1 million in stocks between January 24, the day senators from both parties were briefed about the virus by administration health officials, and February 14. During that period, she also bought stocks for between $450,000 and $1 million (including shares in Citrix, a software company used for teleconferencing).
The same Georgia Honor ad seeks to suggest a disconnect between Loeffler’s January and February stock sales and her public remarks about the pandemic.
After the ad’s narrator said “she told us everything was fine,” the ad cut to a clip of Loeffler saying, “The good news is the consumer is strong, the economy is strong.”
Facts First: This juxtaposition is misleading. Loeffler did not utter the quote about the economy right after the January 24 briefing or at the same time as the January and February stock sales the ad criticizes. Rather, the clip is from a video she posted on Twitter on March 10 – more than three weeks into the pandemic-related stock market decline. Loeffler said in the tweet that she was commenting after a meeting with the President, Vice President, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Loeffler’s claim about the economy was certainly debatable. But the ad may create the impression that this video shows Loeffler publicly hyping the economy as she privately dumped stocks in advance of the stock markets crashing. That is not actually what happened.
Warnock’s campaign itself has cited another Loeffler comment, from a February 28 tweet, as evidence she did downplay the pandemic while dumping stocks. She said in the tweet, “Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness. Here’s the truth: @realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.”
You can argue about the significance of this quote. Regardless, though, it was not the quote the Super PAC used in the ad.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Hyeyoon Alyssa Choi, and Tara Subramaniam contributed to this article.