The campaign of the Georgia Republican senator Kelly Loeffler is disavowing a photo circulating on social media of her posing with a longtime white supremacist at a recent campaign event, with less than a month to go until the runoff elections that will determine the balance of the US Senate.
Loeffler did not know who Chester Doles was when she took a picture with him, her campaign spokesman, Stephen Lawson, said on Sunday. The picture was taken on Friday at a campaign event in Dawsonville, Georgia.
“Kelly had no idea who that was, and if she had she would have kicked him out immediately because we condemn in the most vociferous terms everything that he stands for,” Lawson said.
Doles is a white supremacist who spent decades in the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Doles was sentenced to prison for the 1993 beating of a black man in Maryland and again on weapons violations in Georgia.
Doles is also associated with the Hammerskins, a racist skinhead gang, with whom he marched in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In response to a message from the Associated Press, Doles said on Sunday he had “publicly renounced racism on several occasions in the past couple of years”.
Doles added that he attended a “redemption service”, standing “in front of an all-black congregation and told my story and renounced all racism and asked for God’s forgiveness”.
Doles posted the picture of him and Loeffler to his account on VK, a Russian social networking site where he has posted photos of himself posing with other Georgia politicians, including the Republican congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, the paper reported.
Doles has attempted to insinuate himself into Republican politics over the past year, claiming to have renounced his past while maintaining ties with longtime friends in the white supremacist movement.
In 2019, Doles started a new organisation called American Patriots USA, a group supportive of Donald Trump but deeply tied to the far-right militia movement. Doles endorsed several longshot political candidates in the 2020 election, but also attempted to tie himself to Greene, who had Doles removed from an event in September in Ringgold.
Both major parties and activist groups are ploughing tens of millions of dollars into Georgia before the 5 Janaury vote , when David Perdue and Loeffler hope to hold off Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock respectively.
Republicans need one victory to maintain their Senate majority. Democrats need a Georgia sweep to force a 50-50 Senate and position the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, as the tiebreaking vote.
A flurry of top-flight surrogates has underscored the stakes of the race. The former president Barack Obama headlined a recent virtual rally for Democrats. President-elect Joe Biden plans to visit Atlanta this week to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock.
The vice-president, Mike Pence, was in the state last week and plans to return on Thursday.