Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler was picked to fill an open Senate seat in Georgia because she was considered appealing to moderate suburban women. Then, she started facing challenges from the right - and an angry President Trump.
Loeffler and her fellow Republican senator from Georgia, David Perdue, will both face voters on January 5. The results will determine control of the US Senate.
Loeffler was appointed in 2019 to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson. A fellow Republican, Isakson was well-known for reaching across the aisle.
Loeffler fended off a challenge from Congressman Doug Collins, a favorite among many conservatives in Georgia. She will face Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, in a runoff election next month.
When Kelly Loeffler was picked to fill a Georgia Senate seat last year, Sahar Guyton was the kind of voter that Republicans had in mind. The party had been winning by increasingly narrow margins, and Georgia's GOP needed a senator who could hold together its center-right coalition.
Guyton is a moderate Republican who lives in Henry County, a suburb southeast of Atlanta. She has been involved in politics at the grassroots level for over two decades and feels an allegiance to the party of Reagan, she said, in part because he was president when her family immigrated to the US from Afghanistan when she was 10 years old.
"I believe she appeals to a new generation of women, like myself, and other young women," Guyton, who's in her mid-40s, said of Loeffler. "She upholds our Constitution, supports our family values and a smaller government."
But with less than a month to go before Loeffler faces off against Democrat Raphael Warnock in a January 5 runoff election, the Georgia GOP is divided, and winning over moderate supporters is a losing strategy if Loeffler cannot also hold the right.
As Loeffler prepares to face voters for the second time in as many months, she finds herself in a situation that few predicted: President-elect Joe Biden won the state by roughly 12,000 votes, and Loeffler's fellow Republican senator from Georgia, David Perdue, was also forced into a runoff. With the US Senate majority now hanging in the balance, the January 5 runoff is not just Loeffler's fight to win but also one of the most consequential Senate races in memory.
When Republican Gov. Brian Kemp selected the business executive and co-owner of Atlanta's WNBA team to fill retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson's seat, there was hope that she would follow in Isakson's footsteps. Isakson is a Republican who was well-known for reaching across the aisle in the Senate. He declared himself "big on bipartisanship" in his farewell address. Later, a clip of Isakson embracing his good friend Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who died earlier this year, on the House floor was widely shared.
Kemp picked Loeffler, at least in part, as an appeal to suburban white women in Georgia. She's a 50-year-old former chief executive of a trading firm in Atlanta. She moved to Georgia in 2002 after earning her MBA, but she touts her rural roots on the campaign trail as the daughter of Illinois corn and soybean farmers. She's also the richest member of Congress. Forbes estimated in August Loeffler and her husband had a net worth of at least $800 million. Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is the CEO of the Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Loeffler faced an insider-trading inquiry earlier this year when stock sales made shortly after a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus tripped an alarm wire. The investigations have since ended with no charges.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and author of a treatise on Georgia politics, offered his reasoning why suburban white women were critical for Loeffler.
"The minority vote, particularly the Black vote," is largely Democratic, he said, adding, "The Asian and Hispanic vote is not as heavily Democratic but predominantly so. The white-male vote - that's a Republican vote.
"You look at some of those counties in north Georgia where they have no minorities; you see the whole county or close to 90% has voted Republican, and the white male vote is probably close to 95% Republican. If you were to go into a Walmart, you might have to stay there all day before you find a white male who is going to be a Democrat. So what's up for grabs? It's the white female vote. And the less well-educated white female is probably voting the same way that the less well-educated white male is, which is also going to be very staunch Republican. So now, you've narrowed it down to that better-educated white woman who is more likely to be living in suburbia than in parts of rural Georgia. And that's the one piece of the puzzle that moves."
White women voted overwhelmingly for Kemp in his 2018 gubernatorial race against Stacey Abrams, but Abrams eked out 51% of the suburban vote, up 5 percentage points from former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. According to Census Bureau data, the Atlanta area is the fourth-fastest-growing region in the US. Abrams, coordinating with groups like Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, harnessed the power of that population boom for Democrats this election cycle to register nearly 800,000 new voters.
The GOP needs a united front to combat the increasing Democratic advantage. But the president is stoking hostilities with election-fraud conspiracy theories and nearly constant Twitter attacks on Georgia GOP officials, especially Kemp. The incessant infighting not only distracts from the runoff election but also renders the plan for Loeffler to appeal to suburban women futile if she cannot hold on to the Republican conservative base.
Kemp picked Loeffler over President Donald Trump's favorite for the seat - the four-term congressman Doug Collins. As the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Collins had fiercely defended the president during his impeachment trial. But while Kemp was eyeing the GOP's moderate flank and trying to ease the exodus of suburban women from the party, something unexpected happened. Loeffler started to lose the right.
The Tea Party is about as right as you get. Debbie Dooley, an energy consultant and grandmother from Gwinnett -Atlanta's largest suburban county - is the founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and cofounder of the national Tea Party movement. She did not like the Loeffler pick from the beginning and has not warmed to the idea since. When Loeffler was appointed, she pledged to put at least $20 million of her own money toward her campaign to become the first Georgia woman elected to the Senate. Dooley saw that promise as an attempt to buy the Senate seat.
Then Dooley was not happy that Loeffler took a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The CFTC regulates the business of Loeffler's husband's company. Dooley thought Loeffler had a conflict of interest. Loeffler eventually recused herself from the subcommittee specifically overseeing the CFTC when she came under scrutiny for millions of dollars in stock trades made just after she received a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus in January. The Department of Justice looked into the trades but ultimately dropped the investigation.
Dooley plans to cast a single vote in the Senate runoff election - for Perdue. Perdue is a first-term senator and native Georgian who outperformed Trump by about 750 votes in the November election, though he did not earn enough votes to surpass the requisite 50% plus one to avoid a runoff. If Perdue can beat Democrat and fellow Georgia native Jon Ossoff, then he alone could secure the Senate majority - 51 Republicans to 49 Democrats. So, Dooley said, whoever wins the other race, whether it's Loeffler or Warnock, will get replaced in 2022 by a "true conservative."
A CHALLENGE FROM THE RIGHT
Not every conservative balked at Loeffler in the beginning like Dooley, but just one month after she was appointed, Collins announced that he planned to challenge her for the seat. He was Trump's original pick and the favorite of many conservatives.
Eighteen other candidates followed Collins, including Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the former home to Martin Luther King Jr.
Loeffler invoked the ire of the left when she criticized the Black Lives Matter movement as promoting "violence and destruction" and "very divisive" in the middle of America's summer of racial reckoning. WNBA players, including members of her team - the Atlanta Dream - were not happy, and they spoke out. Players across the WNBA wore "Vote Warnock" T-shirts and called for her removal from the league. Warnock credits that moment as pivotal in his campaign.
Suddenly, Loeffler was facing attack from both sides - Collins on her right, Warnock on her left.
To fend off Collins, Loeffler swung hard right. She touted her pro-life, pro-wall, pro-gun, and pro-police record as the "most conservative" of anyone in her race. She accepted an endorsement from Rep.-elect and QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said she was "impressed" with Loeffler and called her "the most conservative Republican in the race." Just one hour after it was reported that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, Loeffler became the first senator to call for her speedy replacement.
Loeffler's strategy ultimately worked. She beat Collins with 26% of the vote, while Warnock finished with 33% - setting up the two-person runoff. Collins finished third with a hefty 20%, shutting him out of the runoff.
Heading into the runoff against Warnock, Loeffler now has to do two things, according to Amy Steigerwalt, a political-science professor at Georgia State University.
"First, she has to reach out to those who supported Doug Collins instead of her," she said. "But then she needs to reach out to the group that did not vote for either her or Collins. She'll need all of them to win."
Loeffler began reaching out to Collins' supporters. Collins even endorsed her late last month, but a number of his supporters are still uneasy about supporting her.
A FRUSTRATED BASE
On Dec. 5, at a rally in south Georgia, Trump criticized Kemp and suggested to the crowd that Collins challenge Kemp for the governor's mansion in two years. The crowd loved it, and that just stirred the pot.
Some Republicans have responded to Trump's tactics by urging voters to boycott the race, as they push debunked claims of election fraud touted by Trump allies and the attorneys Lin Wood and Sidney Powell. Along Georgia's highways, billboards broadcast messages like, "'Perdue/Loeffler Didn't Deliver for Trump. DON'T Deliver for Them."
"Before going into Thanksgiving, my position was that we have to be all in," Kathy Lanning, a lifelong Republican and stay-at-home mom in north Georgia, said. "But now - " she trailed off. She worked hard for Trump during the campaign and was disappointed when Collins lost the special election. She is not going to boycott the runoff, but she is contemplating how invested to be.
"I can't say I'm fully invested with Kelly Loeffler," Lanning said. "There's too many questions - even though she claims to be the most conservative - for me to get behind her."
For Lanning, it comes down to sincerity: whether Loeffler is as conservative as she claims and whether her support of Trump is genuine.
During the Sunday night debate between Loeffler and Warnock, Loeffler was asked repeatedly if she believed Trump won Georgia and who had her loyalty - Trump or Kemp. She demurred every time.
Some Georgia Republicans are OK with that - even the Trump-supporting, Collins-loving angry ones - but they are not happy about it.
"My dad was a World War II veteran. He fought for my right to vote. And so I'm going to do it, but I'm pissed about it," Cheryl Jackson, a 68-year-old small-business owner from Macon, said about voting for Loeffler. Jackson is going to "hold her nose" and vote this time, she said, but then she wants to see a change, including Collins replacing Kemp as governor.
Most Republicans in Georgia are with Jackson, at least in that they have no intention of staying home on January 5, but there's an enthusiasm gap. It's a warning sign for Loeffler and her campaign that at least some members of the Republican base, like Dooley and Lanning, are hesitant to vote for her.
SurveyUSA released a poll on December 3 showing Loeffler not only trailing Warnock by 7 points but also behind Perdue across demographics, including among Republicans, women, and white voters - by multiple percentage points. In a state that Democrats carried by just under 12,000 votes out of nearly 5 million, even 1 percentage point is the ball game.
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