Conservative cred, Trump loyalty touted by Loeffler in struggle to hold her seat and GOP-controlled Senate

GOP U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler revs up a crowd at a November rally in Marietta soon after she was pushed into a Jan. 5 runoff against Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder.

WASHINGTON — Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the U.S. Senate one year ago by a Republican governor who picked her over a conservative congressman pushed by President Donald Trump.

The selection of Loeffler, a 50-year-old wealthy Atlanta businesswoman and political newcomer, for the vacancy created by longtime Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement was seen as an attempt to shore up support among suburban Republican women.

But she quickly found herself in a primary contest against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump had backed for the Senate opening. Instead of reaching out to wavering moderate Republicans, Loeffler focused her largely self-financed campaign on battling Collins for the GOP base, at one point describing herself as “more conservative than Attila the Hun.” 

Conservative bona fides and loyalty to Trump are how Loeffler has sought to define herself during her brief Senate tenure. Loeffler has voted with the president on nearly every proposal. Since the November election, she has refused to acknowledge that Trump lost the election in Georgia, even as state votes were counted, recounted and certified.

Asked last week by The Associated Press whether she’d consider disputing the election when a joint session of Congress convenes next month for the final certification of Joe Biden’s election, Loeffler replied, “I haven’t looked at it,” adding that “there’s a lot to play out between now and then.” Her comments came after the Electoral College affirmed Biden as the president-elect and multiple courts have rejected lawsuits from Trump.

Sticking to her support of Trump has boxed Loeffler into repeating an increasingly illogical argument as she faces off against Democrat Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

She has described herself and Republican Sen. David Perdue, who also is engaged in a runoff race that will determine control of the Senate, as the last line of defense against “radical” Democratic policies — a view that implies a GOP Senate is needed as a check on a Biden administration.

Georgia political experts say the runoff messaging from Loeffler — whose campaign did not respond to interview requests for this article — has been a continuation of her primary election approach, in which she focused more on attacking Collins and now Warnock than on her own political views and positions.

“She’s in this bizarre position of still needing to actually introduce herself to people,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “It’s not entirely clear who she is, what she’s done, and what positions she is going to support.”

A Georgian with Midwestern roots

Loeffler’s path to becoming one of the richest, if not the wealthiest, member of the U.S. Senate began on a grain farm in central Illinois.

The 5-foot-11 Loeffler grew up playing basketball, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, before heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a marketing degree and then DePaul University in Chicago for an MBA.

She rose to become head of investor relations, marketing and communications for the Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange, a financial trading platform founded by Jeff Sprecher, whom she later married. The company eventually purchased the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s impossible to tally the net worth of Loeffler and Sprecher from the limited disclosures on Senate financial forms, but the couple is worth at least $300 million, according to the AJC. Loeffler earned $3.6 million annually before resigning her role at Intercontinental Exchange subsidiary Bakkt, and the couple’s purchase of a Buckhead mansion was the most expensive residential real estate sale in Atlanta history.

Loeffler’s stock holdings spurred controversy when The Daily Beast reported that stock trades worth seven figures were made on her behalf following a late-January, senators-only briefing on the looming threat of the novel coronavirus.

She has maintained she did not use information from the briefing to guide those stock trades, and that she was divesting from individual stocks. Loeffler was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Skepticism from some conservatives

Loeffler’s attempts to define herself as a conservative have fallen flat for Debbie Dooley, president of the Atlanta Tea Party.

Dooley, who supported Collins in the primary, views Loeffler as having had “an election-year conversion” to conservatism, citing her past financial support of politicians like Utah Sen. and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“Her history is one of a Romney Republican, someone who is more moderate,” said Dooley, who does not intend to vote for Loeffler or Warnock. “All of a sudden when she became a candidate, she decided she was conservative.”

But Loeffler has continued to try to win over the most extreme members of her party. She’s embraced Georgia Rep.-elect Majorie Taylor Greene, who espouses the conspiratorial and bigoted views of QAnon. She’s drawn controversy for taking a photo with a white supremicist, who her campaign later condemned.

Loeffler, who is a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, also has denounced the Black Lives Matter movement, spurring opposition from the team. Asked in a recent debate if she stood by calling the BLM movement fascist, Loeffler responded that “the life of every African American is important, and there is no place for racism in this country.”

She continued: “But there are organizations whose No. 1 goal is to defund the police. And we know that that hurts minority communities more than anyone. And we have to stand with our men and women of law enforcement.”

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said Loeffler’s ads are designed to “energize an existing base,” rather than grow her support, noting that most have been attacks on Warnock and that some have included “very strong racial over- and undertones.”

One ad she launched in mid-November shows a room of mostly white school children reciting the pledge of allegiance. “This is America,” the narrator says, “But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate?” The ad then cuts to a black-and-white photo of Warnock, imposed over images of rioting.

The ad closes with the direction to vote for Loeffler to “save the Senate” and “save America.”