‘Kryptonite?’ Loeffler’s wealth drives campaign, but threatens it, too

Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s wealth has been an asset to her campaign in November’s special election. She plans to spend at least $20 million to win the seat. But her investments have also fed criticism from her opponents, both Republicans and Democrats. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s wealth has been an asset to her campaign in November’s special election. She plans to spend at least $20 million to win the seat. But her investments have also fed criticism from her opponents, both Republicans and Democrats. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s immense wealth is at once her greatest political asset and biggest liability. And nothing exemplifies that tension quite like the uproar over the newly appointed Republican’s stock transactions.

Loeffler has tried to distinguish her situation from that of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican facing calls to resign after FBI agents seized his cellphone as part of an investigation into whether he dumped stocks using private information about the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as she maintains that the FBI hasn't issued a similar search warrant, she is still dogged by questions about her advisers' purchase and sale of millions of dollars worth of stocks as the pandemic worsened. And while she insisted they did no wrong, she said late Thursday that she handed over documents to federal investigators.

Her opponents have relentlessly invoked the investigation. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the most formidable Republican among the 20 candidates challenging her in November, has egged on speculation that she’s bent the rules. Top Democrats have accused her of putting profits ahead of her public duty.

For Loeffler, the scrutiny of her finances is hardly a surprise. When Gov. Brian Kemp picked her to fill a vacant Senate seat, he said he was drawn to her business background and expressed hope that she could help win back female voters who fled his party.

But her biggest edge over potential rivals is a financial one: a pledge to spend at least $20 million to win the seat in November, drawn from holdings of at least $300 million that have likely made her the richest member of Congress.

She appears to be making good on the promise and has already pumped $10 million into her campaign since she took office in January. That includes a recent $4 million purchase of a blizzard of ads aimed at boosting her image — and send the message that she's not budging from the race.

>>More: Trump's coronavirus rift with Kemp puts Georgia Republicans in a tough spot

>>More: Inside how Kemp picked Loeffler for the U.S. Senate

No candidate in modern Georgia history has so aggressively dipped into his or her own bank accounts to promote a campaign as Loeffler, the wife of financial magnate Jeff Sprecher, whose Atlanta-based company owns the New York Stock Exchange.

Rather than downplay her fortune, she’s emphasized it. She shelled out a $1 million contribution to Albany’s hard-hit hospital system, and her campaign hasn’t been shy about advertising the meals or protective gear she’s donated to health care workers, or that she’s contributing her salary to charity.

The most striking example, however, involves the use of a newly purchased private jet that her critics have seized on as an example of how she's out of touch. Some politicos were shocked by her recent TV ad promoting the use of the plane to return stranded travelers to Georgia during the pandemic.

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“Her success is a plus, but her wealth could be a negative,” said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican who is close to Collins but says he is neutral in the race.

He said party leaders needed a “kitchen table” conversation to discuss whether Loeffler should step down because she risks dragging down other Republican contenders.

“The governor made a decision that a woman could definitely help him and the other Republicans on the ticket in the suburbs. I understand his thinking,” Westmoreland said. “But I don’t know that I could find a suburban woman in a year that could relate to having her husband buy her a private plane to take her to the office.”

With scant public polling, the damage to her campaign is still uncertain. But recent internal Republican surveys paint a challenging picture for Loeffler.

One poll conducted for the GOP House Caucus, whose leaders are allied with Collins, obtained earlier this month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Loeffler trailing the congressman by 44 percentage points among Republicans. Another commissioned by a pro-Kemp group showed the two deadlocked with likely voters.

Loeffler’s allies don’t doubt the backlash has dented her image, though they maintain there’s time to repair her status before the November special election, a free-for-all with no party primary. If no candidate gets a majority of the vote — a highly likely prospect — a January runoff awaits.

"Six months is a lifetime in a political race — especially when we know a runoff is inevitable," said Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, who endorsed Loeffler this week. "Loeffler's appeal will grow as people start paying attention and see the significance of her at the top of the ticket long-term for the GOP."

‘Her kryptonite’

Loeffler was dogged by questions about conflicts of interests even before she took office, with watchdog groups warning of a “minefield” of ethical issues on votes that could affect her husband’s company, Intercontinental Exchange.

But the disclosure that her advisers sold off large quantities of stocks in the weeks after she attended a Jan. 24 senators-only briefing on the coronavirus has triggered a slow-burning controversy that's roiled her campaign.

March 6, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited  the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 6, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

She has maintained that no secret information was shared at the meeting and the stock sales were made without her knowledge by her investment advisers. That, however, hasn't quieted the criticism, nor has her decision to stop trading stocks in individual companies or her move to step down from a Senate subcommittee that oversees the commodities markets, including those owned by her husband's firm.

>>More: 'Doubts and questions.' Collins' Senate bid opens fissure in Georgia GOP

>>More: Internal GOP poll points to troubling signs for Georgia

Still, her deep bankroll affords her advantages other candidates can only dream about: a sleek jet to whisk her between campaign stops and Washington votes; and vast resources to buy campaign ads, hire experienced staffers and woo outside groups.

What's complicated matters for her is the hard-charging campaign led by Collins, a top ally of Donald Trump's who lobbied intensely for the job with the president's support but was spurned by Kemp. He's tried to present himself as the race's true conservative — and prevented any circling-of-the-wagons around Loeffler.

“Doug Collins very publicly advocated for the appointment, and from the second he was not the choice, he made clear he wasn’t going to go quietly,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a Georgia State University political scientist.

“There would be a wildly different reaction to this in Georgia if she didn’t have a credible Republican challenger.”

He’s goaded her on social media — “call your office” was his response to the revelation about the FBI’s investigation of Burr — and his campaign has cast her as a wealthy patron who only earned Kemp’s support thanks to her checkbook.

“The only reason there is a Sen. Loeffler is because of money,” said Dan McLagan, Collins’ spokesman. “And now money is her kryptonite.”

Collins has bolstered his campaign in recent weeks with a string of supporters who openly broke with Kemp. They include U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, the only Republican member of Congress in Georgia to pick sides; and former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who is making a comeback bid.

“This race is still incredibly fluid. Plenty of people have just heard the names but aren’t really paying attention,” Steigerwalt said. “But as long as Collins is in the race, Loeffler has an uphill battle. He’s very motivated, strong — he’s an attack dog. It’s not a position I’d like to be in if I were her.”

‘The last dance’

Loeffler, who has won over her own slate of supporters, has tried to reframe her message to center on her response to the COVID-19 outbreak. She recently launched a website focused on the outbreak and infuses her remarks with reminders of her role on Trump's coronavirus task force.

Amid his crowded office, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that business woman Kelly Loeffler will replace U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in Washington.
Amid his crowded office, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that business woman Kelly Loeffler will replace U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in Washington.

Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

And after weeks of largely ignoring Collins, her campaign has recently more directly confronted him. Her aides have taken to calling him “Do Nothing Doug,” and Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson knocked him as a “career politician who plays politics and only looks out for himself.”

The intense Republican-on-Republican fighting has made life easier for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic front-runner who outraised both Collins and Loeffler in the first quarter but lags both in the internal polls.

He's mostly avoided sharp attacks — although one of his Democratic rivals recently highlighted a police incident between Warnock and his wife — but he's been unable to persuade other Democrats to drop out of the race and consolidate around him.

Even as some Republicans fear Warnock could pick up steam as Collins and Loeffler pummel each other, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said those who are worried need only look back six years.

That’s when he and other Republicans were locked in a bruising primary competition for an open U.S. Senate seat while Democrat Michelle Nunn brushed aside little-known competitors. Republican David Perdue handily defeated her that November.

“I don’t see a scenario with Warnock getting a majority of the vote, and all the Republicans in January will be united,” Kingston said. “It will be the last dance of an election year, and everyone will have their eyes on Georgia.”

Until then, Republicans can expect months of intense infighting. Loeffler’s allies note that just a few months ago, impeachment was front and center and the pandemic was a distant threat.

“I hate that it’s come to this, but we’ve got to pull it together because splitting the party will do nothing but help the other side,” Cobb County Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said. “And she’s got what it takes to unite the party.”

Westmoreland, however, said it might be too late for Loeffler to get back on track.

“She’s in trouble. She’s a business lady, and I’m sure in a boardroom setting she could come in and work out a solution. But this is a totally different environment for her,” said Westmoreland, the former congressman. “In politics, perception is the reality.”

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