No political moderate, Loeffler channels Trump in runoff Senate bid

‘I don’t owe them anything,’ she says of D.C. ‘swamp’
United States Senator Kelly Loeffler talks with the media for a quick press conference at Gwinnett County Airport Monday, November 2, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

United States Senator Kelly Loeffler talks with the media for a quick press conference at Gwinnett County Airport Monday, November 2, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Editor’s note: This updated profile of Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is part of a series of stories about the candidates running in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. Another story focuses on Loeffler’s opponent, Raphael Warnock. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has also published profiles of the candidates in the state’s other Senate race, Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff.

When U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler took to the makeshift stage at an upscale restaurant in Peachtree Corners, she might as well have channeled President Donald Trump.

She promoted her private-sector business record, tore into Democrats and then spun right into repeating some of the president’s greatest hits.

“I’ve been attacked — but do you know why?” she asked. “It’s because I don’t owe anyone in Washington anything. The swamp, the career politicians and the fake news, they despise strong conservative women. I don’t owe them anything. I’m only here working for you.”

This sort of red-meat pro-Trump speech in the heart of one of Georgia’s most competitive territories wasn’t exactly how the state’s political class envisioned the race a few months ago.

When Gov. Brian Kemp announced last year that Loeffler would fill the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the gut instinct was to see her appointment as a way to appeal to women, particularly moderates in the suburbs, who have fled the party in the Trump era.

Instead, faced with a challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Loeffler pivoted to the party’s hard-right flank, framing herself as Trump’s most ardent supporter, declaring herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and, more recently, refusing to acknowledge the president’s election defeat.

And scenes like her recent campaign stop in Peachtree Corners, an area where Democrats have gained traction since Trump’s 2016 run, show how she vanquished Collins, survived a 21-candidate November special election and emerged to compete against Democrat Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff for control of the U.S. Senate.

Since Kemp named her to the seat in December 2019, she’s brandished a pro-Trump voting record, assailed the “cancel culture” and ripped the Black Lives Matter movement, transforming herself from a little-known newcomer into a household name among conservatives.

Her main challengers have tried to frame her as an inauthentic messenger. Collins called her a faux conservative who finagled her way to the coveted appointment by Kemp with a promise to dump at least $20 million of her own fortune on the race. Warnock depicts her as a profiteering politician who took advantage of her public position.

Her vast fortune — she’s likely the wealthiest member of Congress — has shaped her campaign. As her adversaries aim to paint her as hopelessly disconnected from average voters, she’s used her bankroll to flood the airwaves with ads and speed her trips across Georgia on board a plush private jet.

“I’ve been attacked for my success, and I’m going to keep fighting against that,” she said at a rally in Buckhead. “Because I’m fighting for every single American’s right and opportunity to live the American dream.”

‘Earned everything’

A co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, Loeffler beat out hundreds of rival applicants for Kemp’s favor last year after Isakson announced his retirement.

She cut a low profile in Georgia politics before she was picked for the coveted seat, though she and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, who owns the company that runs the New York Stock Exchange, were long behind-the-scene players in state politics.

Her selection was Kemp’s most important political decision since he took office in 2019 — and one of his riskiest. He picked Loeffler despite Trump’s initial appeals to appoint Collins to the seat, though the president later praised both candidates and declined to take sides.

As for Kemp, he said his decision boiled down to a few key reasons: She’s “earned everything she’s gotten,” he recently told a cheering crowd, and she’s a conservative with a rural upbringing who “actually believes what she says.”

Those roots trace back to her family farm in Bloomington, Ill., where she grew up weeding soybean fields and playing high school basketball. A stringy teenager, the 5-foot-11 hoops junkie earned the nickname “Newborn Calf.”

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, possibly the richest member of Congress, has pledged to spend $20 million on her own campaign for reelection. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Her career took her to five cities before she was recruited to Atlanta in 2002 to work as an executive for the Intercontinental Exchange, which was then a startup energy trading platform. It has since become a behemoth in financial trading that has gobbled up companies big and small.

Once there, she met and later married Sprecher, the company’s chief executive, who described himself as a “consummate bachelor” who was never going to get hitched — until he fell in love with Loeffler.

The two quickly became a power couple in Atlanta society, hosting events from their $10 million estate in Buckhead and donating to philanthropies. She also rose through the ranks of ICE, last year becoming the chief executive of the company’s bitcoin trading subsidiary, Bakkt.

‘More work’

Her political ambitions were no secret: She flirted with a run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2014 before taking herself out of consideration. She and Sprecher combined to contribute more than $1.6 million to Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012 and cut Kemp an $18,100 check in August 2019, shortly before Isakson announced his retirement.

Still, with no political record and little name recognition, she posed problems and potential for her supporters.

Quickly, some of her past positions threatened to come back to haunt her, as did questions of conflicts of interest.

Perhaps the most serious involved a large number of stocks that she or her husband owned that were sold off shortly after she attended a senators-only coronavirus briefing Jan. 24. Though she was cleared of wrongdoing by federal officials, she’s faced accusations, first from Collins and now Warnock, that she profited off the pandemic.

When U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, blasted Black Lives Matter, players on the team donned T-shirts supporting her chief Democratic rival in the special election for her seat, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.. Twitter/Sue Bird.

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

After the WNBA announced plans to honor Black Lives Matter during a summer of mass protests, Loeffler publicly objected, winning favor from some conservatives and sparking calls for her to quit the league. Her team, the Atlanta Dream, responded by opposing her stance and wearing T-shirts on court that promoted Warnock.

The few public polls show a close race in the twin contests; U.S. Sen. David Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff in his own showdown. The two Democrats and two Republicans have been running as joint tickets, and for good reason: Democrats need to flip both seats to gain control of the Senate.

In the closing stretch, Loeffler has assailed Warnock as too extreme for Georgia — calling him a “radical socialist” 13 times at their lone debate — while promoting herself as a steadfast Trump supporter.

She’s relentlessly appealed to the pool of roughly 2.5 million conservative voters who backed Trump’s narrow November defeat in Georgia and promised to promote his agenda in Congress even as she refuses to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.

“Georgia has red clay — not blue clay. We are going to get it done,” she said at a recent Smyrna rally. “We’re gonna get this done because, together, we are going to show America that this is a red state.”