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Republicans seek to batter Warnock ahead of Georgia runoff

Republicans are launching an all-out assault on Democrat Raphael Warnock ahead of the January Senate runoff in Georgia, surfacing months of opposition research that went largely unused leading up to last week’s general election.

Warnock’s opponent, Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerFeinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight House Democrat accuses Air Force of attempting to influence Georgia runoff races Ossoff, Warnock to knock on doors in runoff campaigns MORE (R-Ga.), has already put more than $1 million behind two new attack ads that seek to tie Warnock to the so-called “radical left” and accuse him of celebrating “anti-American hatred.”

Other Senate Republicans have joined in on the attacks, hyperaware that the runoff between Warnock and Loeffler will play a critical role in determining party control of the upper chamber in 2021 and beyond.

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Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, went largely unscathed in the runup to the November general election as Loeffler and her top Republican opponent Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsMajority say they want GOP in control of Senate: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans Georgia secretary of state says wife has received threatening texts about recount MORE (Ga.) focused mainly on fighting one another for the support of President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE’s conservative base in Georgia.

But with Collins now out of the running, it’s Warnock who has found himself in the line of fire.

"The chaos of the Georgia Senate race up until last Tuesday sort of allowed Warnock to fly under the radar because there were so many people on the ballot and there was so much focus on the presidential race,” said John Ashbrook, a GOP strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE (R-Ky.). “I think that’s the main reason why you hadn’t heard more until now."

Republican operatives have been combing through Warnock’s past sermons and public remarks since well before the runoff campaign began, looking for anything that could prove damaging to his Senate ambitions.

One ad released by Loeffler’s campaign on Thursday highlights Warnock’s 2008 defense of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of President Obama whose fiery sermons and rhetoric earned him widespread criticism more than a decade ago.

Another ad from Loeffler’s team seeks to cast Warnock as sympathetic to communism and alleges that, as a senator, he would “give the radicals total control.”

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Warnock’s campaign pushed back against Loeffler’s latest ad spots on Thursday, calling them “misleading” and accusing Georgia’s junior senator of trying to distract from her own record since entering the upper chamber earlier this year.

“These ads are misleading and say a lot about Kelly Loeffler,” said Terrence Clark, a spokesperson for Warnock’s campaign. “One would think the Senator would have something good to say about herself but instead she’s resorting to the lowest of the low attacks to try and salvage her campaign.”

The attacks aren’t only coming from Loeffler. Other Republicans are joining the pile-on, as well.

Speaking at a campaign kickoff event for Loeffler in the Atlanta suburbs on Wednesday, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Rubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (R-Fla.) sought to tie Warnock to Fidel Castro, pointing to the late Cuban dictator’s appearance at a New York church where Warnock worked 25 years ago.

“Now, you know, 25 years later, one of the pastors of that church wants to be the U.S. senator from Georgia.” Rubio said. “So, all that reminds me of is this: it’s true, to be fair, not all Democrats are socialists. But all the socialists are Democrats.”

A spokesperson for Warnock noted that the reverend was a youth pastor at the New York church at the time of Castro’s visit and was not responsible for the decision to bring in the Cuban leader.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection More conservatives break with Trump over election claims MORE (R-Ark.) took to Twitter on Wednesday to surface a 2002 article from The Baltimore Sun reporting that Warnock had been arrested for allegedly obstructing a police investigation into suspected child abuse at a church-run camp in Maryland.

“If a Republican helped run a camp for children that was investigated for child abuse – and then was arrested for trying to block the investigation – the media would be asking a lot of questions,” Tillis tweeted.

Warnock was not a suspect in the abuse, and the obstruction charge was later dismissed, with a prosecutor noting at the time that his arrest was the result of a miscommunication with law enforcement.

The race between Loeffler and Warnock is one of two in Georgia that will help determine the balance of power in the Senate.

Sen. David PerdueDavid PerdueTrump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight House Democrat accuses Air Force of attempting to influence Georgia runoff races MORE (R-Ga.) is set to face off against Democrat Jon Ossoff in another runoff election on Jan. 5 after neither candidate cleared the 50-percent threshold required to win the general election outright.

The GOP will enter the next Congress with 50 seats in the upper chamber, while Democrats so far have 48. That means Democrats will have to defeat both Loeffler and Perdue in the January runoffs if they hope to have a controlling vote in the Senate after President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE is sworn in next year.

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Both parties are poised to deploy their top political talents ahead of the runoffs.

Biden, who currently leads President Trump by about 14,000 votes in Georgia, has indicated that his campaign will do “anything we can” to help Ossoff and Warnock, and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has earned praise for helping turn out the vote for Biden in Georgia, is already turning her attention to the runoffs. Vice President Pence, meanwhile, is expected to travel to Georgia next week to boost Perdue and Loeffler.

Warnock’s campaign has been expecting the attacks on him to ramp up. In his first ad of his runoff campaign, he warned that the GOP would go after him for transgressions as minor as stepping “on a crack in the sidewalk.”

“Get ready, Georgia. The negative ads are coming,” Warnock says in the 30-second spot released last week, just two days after the general election. “Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic, so she’s going to try to scare you with lies about me.”