Ga. Senator’s Campaign Says She ‘Had No Idea’ She Took a Photo with a Former KKK Leader

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign is distancing her from a photo of her posing with a former Ku Klux Klan leader, insisting the interaction was unwitting.

Loeffler, 50, is seen in the image wearing an American flag hat and standing next to Chester Doles, who formerly led a "major KKK faction" in Maryland, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Washington Post reports the image was taken Friday at a campaign event in Dawsonville, Georgia, and then spread on social media over the weekend.

Loeffler’s campaign told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday that she "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."

Her photo with Doles drew disapproval, including from Loeffler's opponent in the upcoming runoff election. Loeffler, a businesswoman appointed to her seat in 2019, has run a campaign in the same vein as outgoing President Donald Trump.

This summer she said she “adamantly” opposed the Black Lives Matter movement — and being photographed with Doles fueled criticism about her stance on race. (Loeffler has said "there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country.")

Doles told the Associated Press on Sunday that he “publicly renounced racism on several occasions in the past couple of years,” though his decades-long ties to hate groups — including his involvement in the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia ,and his ties to the neo-Nazi National Alliance — has been documented by civil rights groups and in news reports.

The senator's campaign did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

Doles tells PEOPLE he doesn't believe Loeffler knew who he was when he approached her for a photo, though he was wearing a hoodie with a "huge shield on the front of it that said American Patriots USA."

Doles identified himself as a fifth-generation KKK member and a former member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance group "but I walked away from that s— years ago," he says. "It's a fact. I own it," he says of his past.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, Loeffler's Democratic Party opponent in the Jan. 5 runoff, told the AJC that Loeffler “is once again trying to distance herself from someone who is a known white supremacist and former KKK leader who nearly beat a Black man to death.”

Loeffler spoke at a rally in September where Doles — who served a prison sentence for the “vicious 1993 beating of a black man,” according to the SPLC — had been asked to leave, according to the AJC.

“There’s no acceptable explanation for it happening once, let alone a second time,” said Warnock, 51.

“This is who [Loeffler] is proudly appealing to,” tweeted the progressive Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc, sharing the image on Twitter.

Incoming Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams also criticized Doles being seen with Loeffler, according to the AJC.

“Hatred and racism have no place in our politics, yet once again we are seeing Senator Kelly Loeffler appear with a bigoted and appalling figure,” Williams said. “This isn’t the first time her campaign, which is responsible for divisive attacks, is having to explain why this has taken place. Georgians deserve better than her excuses and her deeply negative campaign.”

Loeffler, who also co-owns the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream franchise, is seeking reelection to one of two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia that will determine who has majority control of one half of Congress.

In addition to Loeffler and Warnock’s race, Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff is looking to unseat Republican Sen. David Perdue.

Ossoff’s communications director, Miryam Lipper, also criticized Loeffler for the photo with Doles on Sunday.

“This is Georgia’s GOP,” Lipper tweeted.

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