How Kelly Loeffler is trying to pivot her coronavirus message

01/27/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta, Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
01/27/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta, Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

At the start of another teleconference town hall with supporters, newly-appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler delivered a hopeful account of Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to ease pandemic restrictions: "There's a light at the end of the tunnel."

The Republican is hoping the same for the fate of her campaign as she tries to refocus her message on Georgia's response to the coronavirus crisis – and away from the stock transactions that threaten her November election chances.

In recent days, the senator has launched a "Georgia Relief and Recovery" website with details about the outbreak. She's touted her role on President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force. She's trumpeted every federal allotment – big or small – of funds to fight the disease.

And Loeffler, likely the wealthiest member of Congress, has dipped into her own bank account to buy meals for first-responders, healthcare workers and, most recently, shell out a $1 million donation to the Phoebe Putney hospital system in hard-hit Albany to buy life-saving gear.

Her campaign hasn't been shy about advertising the meals she's donated, or the stories of coronavirus "heroes," on her social media pages. And during a round of interviews with outlets in AlbanyMacon and north Georgia, she rolled out a markedly different tone.

“My No. 1 priority is to focus on supporting Georgia with any needs the state has,” Loeffler told the Albany Herald. “That’s all I’m focusing on, delivering those needs. I want to do all I can do to help Georgia come out of this strong. I’ll turn to campaigning when the time is appropriate.”

Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

‘Can’t buy love’

The campaign back-and-forth has hardly abated. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, her top Republican adversary, has labeled her an out-of-touch business executive and faux conservative whose biggest selling point to Kemp was her immense fortune.

“You can’t buy love and you can’t buy an election,” Collins said on social media late Tuesday, before invoking the former New York mayor who pumped more than $1 billion into his failed presidential campaign. “Mike Bloomberg learned a very expensive lesson.”

(Collins also promoted a report in the Daily Beast on how visitors to her coronavirus site who sign up for a newsletter end up on her campaign mailing list. Collins' spokesman called it a "scam" targeting vulnerable people; Loeffler's campaign said it was a clearly marked part of the site separate from other sections urging visitors to make specific inquiries about the disease.)

The dynamic has made life easier for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic frontrunner who outraised both Collins and Loeffler in the first quarter. He's mostly avoided sharp attacks – although one of his rivals highlighted a recent police incident – as he's trained his fire on Loeffler.

“I'm deeply concerned about putting someone who sheltered her investments while Georgians sheltered in place on a task force charged with helping working Georgians financially recover,” Warnock said of Trump’s decision to appoint her to an economic recovery panel.

Loeffler has tried to tamp down the criticism over financial transactions as the coronavirus pandemic worsened by announcing she would no longer invest in stocks for individual companies, a development all the more newsworthy coming from the wife of the owner of the New York Stock Exchange.

And she's blamed media coverage for the fallout, though some of her sharpest critics are fellow Republicans who support Collins. On the town hall call, she called the scrutiny "baseless political attacks on me and my character;" she's gone a step farther on Fox News, labeling them "socialist" hits.

Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler takes a photo with a supporter during her rally earlier this month at the Cobb County Republican Party’s headquarters in Marietta. Loeffler is now facing some scrutiny over stock transactions made following her attendance at a senators-only briefing on the coronavirus. She has called the accusations politically motivated and said her stock “portfolio is managed by third parties” and she had no knowledge of them until days or weeks after they occurred. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler takes a photo with a supporter during her rally earlier this month at the Cobb County Republican Party’s headquarters in Marietta. Loeffler is now facing some scrutiny over stock transactions made following her attendance at a senators-only briefing on the coronavirus. She has called the accusations politically motivated and said her stock “portfolio is managed by third parties” and she had no knowledge of them until days or weeks after they occurred. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

‘I know what it’s like’

The damage to her campaign is not yet clear. There has been scant recent polling of the race, and the surveys that have been released were tied to Collins' campaign. But a string of Republican officials recently endorsed Collins. And some political prognosticators say they've detected a deeper shift.

The Cook Political Report sounded the most skeptical note about the incumbent’s chances of winning the free-for-all in November, saying the seat will likely remain in GOP control but it’s “looking increasingly like it may not be Loeffler that will be the one to keep it there.”

Loeffler’s advisers believe they have time to refocus her bid, and framing her as an capable pandemic policy wonk appears to be the first step.

Her weekly newsletters are filled with sunny stats about small business applications approved and “huge victories” for Georgia hospitals and airports with each new federal stimulus allotment from Washington.

And her remarks are laced with reminders of her background in the financial sector, an attribute she hopes comes in handy as she tries to connect with voters amid an economy ravaged by the pandemic.

“I understand what it’s like to stand up a business, to struggle, to sign a paycheck,” she told the audience during Monday’s teleconference. “I know what it’s like to deal with the day-to-day needs of a company.”

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