At a Glance: 

  • Incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican and former energy executive who may be the richest member of the U.S. Senate, has said little about climate change in positioning herself as an ardent supporter of President Trump and his pro-fossil fuel agenda. 
  • The Rev. Rafael Warnock, Loeffler’s challenger in a Jan. 5 runoff and the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has a climate plan with a strong focus on environmental justice, that calls for a clean energy economy in Georgia and the rest of the nation by 2050. 
  •  One Loeffler supporter says the senator’s stint on the board of an investor-owned utility helps give her practical energy experience. But it’s her challenger, Warnock, who has called for a clean energy economy by 2050.
Loeffler v. Warnock

In a runoff election in Georgia that could help flip party power in the Senate, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s first political ads aim at energizing her conservative base. How? By casting her challenger, the Rev. Rafael Warnock, as a left-wing extremist.

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One ad attempts to paint the Black pastor of the Atlanta church once led by Martin Luther King Jr, as a police-hating, Castro-loving Marxist. “This is America. But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate?” the narrator asks, while images show street riots.

Welcome to the overtime period of the 2020 election, where the Loeffler-Warnock Senate race is one of two in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate. The outcome will determine whether Joe Biden, the president-elect, will have a shot at enacting parts of his $2 trillion plan for a clean energy economy, the most ambitious climate agenda of any president. 

Warnock has made climate change and environmental justice part of his campaign. Loeffler avoids talking about climate and boasts of being the senator most loyal to President Trump, who has led the nation out of the Paris climate accord and pursued energy policies that champion the fossil fuel industry. 

On Nov. 3, Warnock topped a field of 20 candidates running in a “jungle primary” special election that included Loeffler, who Gov. Brian Kemp appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Johnny Isakson in late 2019. Warnock received 32.9 percent of the vote, while Loeffler got 25.9 percent. Her main Republican challenger, Rep. Doug Collins, received 19.9 percent.

Warnock has already begun attempting to preemptively inoculate himself from Loeffler’s attacks in ads of his own. In one, he says: “Get ready Georgia. The negative ads are coming. Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of healthcare in the middle of a pandemic. So she’s going to try to scare you with lies about me.” 

He also told voters on election night that he plans to “lean in” to his biography—that he is the product of public housing and federal programs that helped him become the first member of his family to graduate from college.

“If you need somebody who will stand up for ordinary people, here I am. Send me,” Warnock said.

The other Senate race in Georgia that is headed to a runoff pits Democrat Jon Ossoff against incumbent Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who narrowly came out ahead in the general election. But like Warnock, Perdue failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote, which in Georgia forces a runoff between the two top vote-getters. Both Warnock and Ossoff, clear underdogs, must win to split the Senate 50-50, which would mean that Kamala Harris, as vice president, would cast tie-breaking votes.

Loeffler may be the wealthiest member of Congress, with Forbes estimating that she and her husband are worth $800 million. She is a co-owner of the WNBA franchise Atlanta Dream and the former CEO of a financial technology firm. Her husband, Jeff Sprecher, created Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. 

Sprecher was developing power plants in the late 1990s before he formed Intercontinental Exchange, for trading energy commodities online. The company took off after Enron collapsed. Loeffler joined the company as an executive in 2002 and married Sprecher two years later. 

While Gov. Kemp appointed her to fill Isakson’s seat with the goal of shoring up support from suburban women, Loeffler has never won a statewide election.

One of the first post-Election Day polls had Loeffler and Warnock basically tied, with Loeffler up by 1 percent.

Like the other Senate race in Georgia, the Loeffler-Warnock contest will be hard fought because of what’s at stake, said Daniel Franklin, an emeritus professor of political science at Georgia State University.

The Money Race: Georgia

He said that Loeffler’s battle against Collins split the Georgia Republican Party. “Whether the party will be able to heal this rift, and whether Republican turnout will be high in the runoff election in the absence of President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, remains to be seen,” he said.

Cory Struthers, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia who follows elections, said she thinks the race will be competitive, but that turnout will be a challenge for both parties, because the Jan. 5 election is so close to the holiday season and New Year’s Day.

“The timing is terrible,” she said. “There is a general sense of voter fatigue, and election fatigue.”

Through mid-October, Loeffler had raised $28.2 million, primarily through self-financing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Warnock had raised $21.7, the center said. Republicans and Democrats are making appeals for massive amounts of additional money for each of the Senate runoffs.

Political experts said the Republicans may well have the edge in what has been for many years a deeply red state.

But progressives point to a decade of work by numerous organizations and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governorship two years ago and has since thrown her energy into voter rights advocacy. Georgia is now a true political battleground, one that appears to have given Joe Biden a squeaker of a win. He now leads Trump by over 14,000 votes in an election with almost 5 million votes cast. 

“It is validating to know all the hard work you have done has paid off,” said Brionté McCorkle, director of the Georgia Conservation Voters. “To have all these eyes on Georgia now is amazing when we used to be discounted.”

In Georgia, climate change and the environment have not been what the Senate candidates have been talking about the most. Democrats have focused on the coronavirus pandemic, health care and equity. Republicans have talked about the Supreme Court, abortion, gun rights, socialism and Trump.

But in the Loeffler-Warnock race, climate voters have a choice.

Warnock has made responding to the climate crisis and environmental injustice part of his platform, and he has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.

“Rev. Warnock is committed to moving us toward racially and economically just solutions to climate change,” said Craig Auster, senior director of political affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “He is a faith leader who has been outspoken about these issues and actively worked on them.”

Loeffler spent most of her time the last few months going hard right to fend off fellow Republican Rep. Doug Collins in the special election, calling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun” in a series of campaign ads, including one in which an actor playing Attilla sent an illegal immigrant to the dungeon. 

“She has not been super clear where she stands on climate but she has for the most part been a conservative vote in the Senate,” Auster said. “Kelly Loeffler has really strongly embraced President Trump’s agenda and Mitch McConnell’s agenda.”

In fact, Loeffler has voted with President Trump 100 percent of the time, according to the FiveThirtyEight website.

Her campaign did not respond to a request for an interview or information about her climate plans.

Tim Echols, a Republican member of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates electricity in the state and sets statewide energy policies, said Loeffler knows a lot about energy from her corporate experience, including serving on the board of directors of Georgia Power, the major investor-owned utility in the state.

He said that as CEO of the Atlanta-based Bakkt, a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange, she was involved in investing and trading within the energy sector.

“For me as a conservative Republican, Kelly has the full package,” Echols said. “She is right on the social issues, she knows business and she understands energy minutiae.” She will likely favor extending electric vehicle tax credits and keeping solar investment tax credits, while backing nuclear energy, he said.

Climate and environmental justice will be on the ballot in both Senate races, with a growing number of Georgia voters who are concerned about those issues, said Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer with the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that advocates for racial equity.

The partnership does not endorse political candidates, Smith said, but he added that he is pleased that Warnock is talking about climate and environmental justice.

He said that too many Georgia families are paying too much of their income on utility bills because they live in substandard housing that would benefit from energy efficiency retrofitting or access to solar power.

“We are having more and more hurricanes,” Smith said. “We are having more and more heat issues.”

And as Georgia moves toward a clean energy economy to fight climate change, he said, there is a strong possibility that communities now suffering will be left even farther behind.

Last year, Warnock hosted an interfaith meeting on climate change at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which featured former Vice President Al Gore.

“The flooding and extreme weather we have seen in coastal Georgia and across the South are sobering reminders of how devastating climate change can be in our daily lives, especially in underserved and rural communities,” Warnock said, in a written statement provided by his campaign. 

“As a person of faith, I can think of nothing more important than honoring and protecting the only home we’ve been blessed with, for ourselves and our children.”

Warnock supports the United States rejoining the Paris climate agreement and building on international commitments to fight climate change. He wants to prepare Georgia’s coastline for rising seas, invest in green infrastructure, green energy and green jobs, commit to a clean economy by 2050 and “hold polluters and utility companies accountable.”

Beyond that, he said, he would “fight to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in Washington.”

The Takeaway:

Loeffler just emerged from a rough special election that split the Republican Party and allowed Warnock to get the most votes among 20 candidates.

If her sharply conservative rhetoric can bring divided Republicans back together, she may well find herself winning her first statewide election—and she is likely to receive significant support from Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who does not want to give up his Senate leader’s office.

But with the stakes so high, Democrats can also be expected to pour vast amounts of money into the race. Warnock has a chance to win if he and his allies can once again motivate a growing base of Black, brown and progressive urban and suburban voters. Those voters have turned Georgia into the battlefield state apparently won by Biden, the first Democratic victory in a presidential race since Bill Clinton won the state in 1992. 

InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of ICN's National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville's Courier Journal, where he worked as a correspondent...