FactChecking the Georgia Senate Runoffs

0
34
FactChecking the Georgia Senate Runoffs

Two months after Election Day, control of the U.S. Senate in the 117th Congress comes down to two races in Georgia on Jan. 5. None of the four candidates on the ballot garnered 50% of the vote on Nov. 3, which forced separate runoffs.

In one of the contests, Georgia’s senior senator, Republican David Perdue, is defending his seat against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a media executive and investigative journalist, who ran for a House seat in 2017. In the other, Georgia’s junior senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat in December 2019, is trying to win a special election against Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Democrats have labeled the Republican candidates selfish politicians more interested in serving themselves than their constituents, and Republicans have branded the Democratic challengers dangerous liberals trying to change America. Below we recap the facts behind the claims made in some of the many attack ads released by the campaigns and outside groups in the last nine weeks.

Loeffler vs. Warnock

Claim: Warnock “called police thugs and gangsters.” — Loeffler campaign ad

Facts: Warnock did not use those words to describe all law enforcement.

In a 2015 sermon, Warnock talked about police in Ferguson, Missouri — where Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man was shot and killed by a white officer in August 2014 — “showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality.” He added, “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.”

In an email, Warnock’s campaign told us, “This is very clearly in reference to a specific incident in Ferguson, Missouri and the behavior of some in the Michael Brown shooting, not at a comment on all police officers.”

Full story: “Loeffler-Warnock Runoff Starts with Attack Ads,” Nov. 19

Claim: Loeffler “immediately” began “dumping stocks” after a January Senate briefing about the coronavirus. — Warnock campaign ad

Facts: This is disputed by Loeffler, who has said the decision to sell between $1.3 million and $3 million in stock she and her husband jointly owned was made independently by outside advisers overseeing the couple’s stock holdings.

“I have never used any confidential information I received while performing my Senate duties as a means of making a private profit. Nor has anyone in my family,” Loeffler wrote in an April 8 Wall Street Journal column. “My family’s investments are managed by third-party advisers at Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Sepio Capital and Wells Fargo. These professionals buy and sell stocks on our behalf. We don’t direct trading in these accounts. These trades are disclosed routinely and publicly in reports to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, in full compliance with transparency laws.”

The Senate Select Committee on Ethics found no evidence that Loeffler violated federal laws or Senate rules against insider trading. The Department of Justice also reportedly dropped its own investigation of Loeffler and two other senators — Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican — who reported selling large amounts of stock after the January briefing.

Full story: “Loeffler-Warnock Runoff Starts with Attack Ads,” Nov. 19

Claim: Warnock “hosted a rally for Communist dictator Fidel Castro.” — Loeffler campaign ad

Facts: Warnock has denied that he had any say in inviting the late Cuban leader to speak in 1995 at New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Warnock worked as a youth pastor at the time. 

“I had nothing to do with that program. I did not make any decisions regarding the program. I have never met the Cuban dictator, and so I’m not connected to him,” Warnock said in a Nov. 15 CNN interview.

The Associated Press reported that the event with Castro was organized by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing, which advocated lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Warnock’s campaign has not said whether Warnock was present when Castro spoke, but Abyssinian’s pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts, did attend and made remarks.

Full story: “Loeffler-Warnock Runoff Starts with Attack Ads,” Nov. 19

Claim: Warnock is “backed by defund the police radicals. … Warnock cannot stand up to the radicals because he’s one of them.” — American Crossroads ad

Facts: Warnock doesn’t support efforts to defund law enforcement, as the Republican super PAC’s deceptive ad suggests. He has said multiple times that he opposes defunding the police, the controversial concept of eliminating or reallocating funds from police budgets. 

In a June 25 Sirius XM radio interview, for example, he said: “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.”

Full story: “Ad Links Warnock to ‘Defunding the Police,’” Nov. 25

Claim: Loeffler “supports raising taxes on Georgia’s middle class.” — Warnock campaign ad

Facts: That’s false. The claim refers to the fact that Loeffler has voiced support for the 2017 Republican tax law, which was enacted before she took office. That law included temporary cuts to individual income taxes that will expire after 2025, resulting in a tax increase for most taxpayers.

But the economic plan Loeffler unveiled in late April says she wants to make the law’s tax cut provisions “for working and middle class families permanent.” Her campaign also said she has “committed to opposing all tax increases at the federal level,” and she signed a pledge with Americans for Tax Reform, saying she would “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.”

Full story: “Warnock’s False Ad on Taxes,” Dec. 9

Claim: Warnock “supports cashless bail for criminals,” which “puts the most violent right back into our neighborhoods.” — National Republican Senatorial Committee ad

Facts: That’s misleading; Warnock specifically supports ending cash bail for those accused of nonviolent crimes.

In an email, his campaign told us: “Reverend Warnock supports ending cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, not an all out ban on cash bail as this [NRSC ad] suggests.”

In fact, a 2018 Atlanta ordinance that Warnock supported “maintains the ability to impose bail and other conditions for certain offenders including violent offenders, repeat offenders, and offenders who fail to appear for their initial hearing,” according to the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who signed the ordinance into law.

Warnock has been critical of the cash bail system, which requires individuals charged with committing crimes to pay a fee in order to leave jail while their court case is pending. He has argued that cash bail laws contribute to the mass incarceration of poor people, who may not be able to afford the bail amount set by a judge.

Full story: “NRSC’s Dual Attack on Warnock and Ossoff,” Dec. 4

Perdue vs. Ossoff

Claim: Ossoff would “defund police” and provide “voting rights for illegal immigrants.” — Perdue campaign ad

Facts: That’s a distortion of Ossoff’s positions; he doesn’t support doing either.

In a Sirius XM radio interview on Sept. 11, Ossoff said, “I oppose defunding the police and I think frankly, it’s a counterproductive and foolish way of characterizing what I think for some folks is a desire to reform police.”

The Perdue campaign pointed to Ossoff saying in a June radio interview: “You have to have national standards for the use of force, and yeah, you’ve got to be able to hold individual officers and entire departments accountable, and there also has to be funding for those departments on the line.”

Ossoff’s campaign said he was talking about supplemental police funding. In August, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he agrees with President-elect Joe Biden’s position of tying federal funds for law enforcement agencies to meeting certain standards, including whether they can “demonstrate they can protect the community.”

In addition, Ossoff, like Biden, supports creating “a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who are already here and otherwise follow the law.” Once they become citizens, which could take years, they would gain the right to vote.

But that’s not the same as allowing “voting rights for illegal immigrants,” which suggests allowing those noncitizens to vote.

Full story: “Opening Ads in the Perdue-Ossoff Runoff,” Nov. 19

Claim: Perdue “only serves himself by voting for pay raises for himself while he votes against military pay raises.” — American Bridge 21st Century ad

Facts: Perdue didn’t vote specifically for congressional pay raises or against military pay raises, as a former U.S. Marine says in the Democratic super PAC’s ad.

The claim is based on the senator’s votes against massive appropriations bills that included sections funding automatic military pay raises or blocking automatic pay increases for Congress. Perdue has said he opposed the spending bills in question for reasons that had nothing to do with the provisions concerning congressional or military pay, which were only part of the large bills. 

Full story: “Cherry-Picked Pay-Raise Attacks on Perdue,” Dec. 17

Claim: Ossoff “praised” the Green New Deal. — National Republican Senatorial Committee ad

Facts: That’s misleading; Ossoff spoke favorably about one aspect of the Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House and by Sen. Ed Markey in the Senate.

In September 2019, Ossoff told the New York Times: “I commend Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for linking environmental policy and infrastructure policy.” And Ossoff’s own campaign website says he will “support a historic infrastructure plan that includes massive investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.”

But Ossoff has repeatedly said he does not support the Green New Deal as a whole. “They’re claiming that I support the Green New Deal. I do not,” he told the Gwinnett Daily Post in August, pushing back against a claim made in a different NRSC ad.

Full story: “NRSC’s Dual Attack on Warnock and Ossoff,” Dec. 4

Claim: “Liberal megadonors” are spending $1 billion in “dark money” to help Ossoff. — Senate Leadership Fund ad

Facts: That amount is how much multiple experts estimate may be spent on all candidates in both Georgia Senate elections for the entire 2020 campaign cycle.

The headline of a MarketWatch story the Republican super PAC cited to support the claim states clearly: “Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections could spark $1 billion in political spending, analysts say.” 

And that includes all spending, not just “dark money,” which refers to spending by politically active groups that do not disclose the source of their money.

Full story: “A Misleading Dark Money Attack on Ossoff,” Dec. 1

Claim: Perdue “ignored the medical experts, downplayed the crisis and left us unprepared.” — Ossoff campaign ad

Facts: We’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves if Perdue’s comments did that.

The ad features clips of Perdue’s flawed comments comparing COVID-19 to the flu, praising Georgia’s early reopening plan and crediting President Donald Trump for keeping the death count below projections.

But some of the comments used in the ad – such as Perdue saying on March 11 that “the risk of this virus … still remains low” and that “very, very few people have been exposed to it” — came early in the year at a time when there were still relatively few COVID-19 cases and when medical experts were making similar statements. And Perdue’s campaign emphasized to us that he made other comments warning about the seriousness of the virus and reinforcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to reduce the spread of the virus.

Full story: “Opening Ads in the Perdue-Ossoff Runoff,” Nov. 19

Claim: “Ossoff ignored the rules, hiding cash from Chinese communists and terrorist sympathizers.” — Senate Leadership Fund ad

Facts: The misleading claim refers to compensation Ossoff received from two TV or broadcasting groups that he left out of his May financial disclosure filings for his Senate candidacy. Ossoff didn’t initially disclose that his documentary and TV production company, Insight TWI, received more than $5,000 in compensation in the past two years from PCCW Media Limited in Hong Kong and Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha, Qatar. 

But Ossoff’s campaign objected to the Senate Leadership Fund ad’s descriptions of the two media companies, which paid the money to air investigative documentaries. “PCCW does not = Chinese communists and Al Jazeera does not = terrorist sympathizers,” Miryam Lipper, a spokesperson for the campaign, told us in an email.

Ossoff also had amended his filings in July to include the payments from those companies.

Full story: “Twisting the Facts on ‘Dirty Money’ in the Georgia Race,” Nov. 19

Claim: Ossoff “could face federal investigation” for failing to disclose payments received by his broadcast production company from PCCW and Al Jazeera. 

Facts: The only support for this claim is a Dec. 8 letter the Georgia Republican Party sent to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics asking for an investigation. Perdue is using that partisan request to make the improbable claim that there could be an investigation. 

The Senate Select Committee on Ethics “does not have authority to investigate allegations made against candidates,” Bryson B. Morgan, a member of the law firm Caplin & Drysdale who previously was investigative counsel for the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics, told us in an email. “Instead, the Committee’s jurisdiction extends to ‘the conduct of individuals in the performance of their duties as Members of the Senate, or as officers or employees of the Senate,’” he said, citing the committee’s “Rules of Procedure.”

The committee “arguably would have jurisdiction” if Ossoff wins the election, Morgan said, but “such an investigation is extremely unlikely,” both because the committee “rarely conducts investigations” and the issue is moot. Ossoff “proactively corrected the issue by filing an amendment.” 

Full story: “Perdue’s Shaky Claim of a Nonexistent ‘Investigation,’” Dec. 23. 

Claim: “Ossoff lied, bankrolling his campaign with corporate PAC donations funneled through national liberals.” — Senate Leadership Fund ad

Facts: Ossoff’s campaign told us it “has not taken a single contribution from a corporate PAC.” Such PACs are set up by corporations and take contributions from employees.

The basis for the claim is a Townhall story pointing out that Ossoff had received money from leadership PACs, which are used by politicians to donate to other members of their parties. Leadership PACs, the story said, “allow candidates to receive corporate donations indirectly.”

However, the amounts received by Ossoff from leadership PACs don’t show they are “bankrolling his campaign.” According to the most recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Ossoff has raised $32.3 million, and all PAC donations total only $322,000, or 1% of that.

Full story: “Twisting the Facts on ‘Dirty Money’ in the Georgia Race,” Nov. 19

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104. 

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.