OPINION: Kelly Loeffler may have lost her race, but she never left the field

January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Senator Kelly Loeffler leaves after she spoke to her supporters during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Senator Kelly Loeffler leaves after she spoke to her supporters during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

If you’ve ever wondered what David Perdue could have done this year instead of running a GOP primary against Gov. Brian Kemp — only to lose by more than 50 points, take a look at what Kelly Loeffler has done.

Since the day both senators lost their seats in the contentious 2021 runoffs, Loeffler has made it her business to fortify Republicans’ chances in future Georgia elections, even when she’s not on the ballot.

The biggest piece of that has been launching and plowing millions of her own money into Greater Georgia, her new nonpartisan effort to register and mobilize conservatives in Georgia elections.

Loeffler has also become the vice-chair and top donor for a state Senate Republican leadership committee, Citizens for a Greater Georgia, and has pumped hundreds of thousands more into GOP campaigns large and small, from $280,000 to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again PAC, to tens of thousands to the Republican National Committee, the Georgia GOP, and grassroots efforts focused on everything from on suburban women to anti-abortion groups to Hispanic voters.

She has not returned to her former position at Intercontinental Exchange or Bakkt, the company’s crypto exchange. Politics, she said in an interview in her gleaming offices high above Buckhead, is still her full-time job.

I interviewed Loeffler last week to talk about what she’s been doing since the runoffs and why she’s decided to stay in the thick of the Georgia fray, even after her high-profile defeat.

“I had to stay involved,” she said about the time after the January runoffs. “I felt there was a clear need for continuing to serve in some capacity. And we had learned so much in our campaign about what needed to be done in Georgia so that what we ran into never happens again.”

“What they ran into,” she said, was Democrats’ well-financed, highly organized, year-round field operations, overhauled by Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight years ago, which outmanned Republican efforts in 2020 and 2021.

Loeffler took a few weeks off after the election, but by late February had sketched out a plan for Greater Georgia to become a conservatives’ answer to Fair Fight.

“As a business person, I looked at (the campaign infrastructure) and said, it’s wrong to tear this down and to not dedicate the knowledge that I gained to those who are going to run in the next election, whether it was me or not.”

Like any campaign, she fielded polling, gathered data, and led roundtables with voters to get their feedback, including separate roundtables for Black, Latino and Asian voters. She said the data showed thousands of conservative-leaning unregistered voters in Georgia and thousands more registered voters who didn’t show up in 2020 — on top of the conservatives who skipped the runoffs in 2021.

The answer, she said, is a year-round plan to register, listen and mobilize.

“I saw as a candidate that my goal of having a big tent party is hard to achieve if we’re being transactional with voters and just showing up during a campaign,” she said.

Inflation, energy prices, and a general sense of crisis fatigue are the big issues she’s hearing from conservative voters, along with worries about what she described as “election integrity.”

With Donald Trump’s conduct in the 2020 election under grand jury investigation, I asked if she thinks her own election was legitimate. Multiple investigations have revealed no widespread voter fraud.

“I obviously conceded two days after the election,” she said. But she added a caveat about the 2020 elections that nearly all Republicans do: “I will say that the number of [voting] changes and in the speed with which those changes were made and the communication around those changes caused a great deal of uncertainty for voters.”

Loeffler’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans in the state, nor has the contrast with David Perdue.

“I love the fact that she did not take her ball and go home,” said Martha Zoller, the conservative Gainesville radio host. “I love the fact that she is putting her money where her mouth is and she is getting other people to contribute, too. She has put together a professional organization that is helping other organizations.”

Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime GOP donor said that Loeffler is “staying above the fray” doing “yeoman’s work”

To Tanenblatt’s point, Loeffler stayed so far above the fray in this year’s races that she didn’t endorse any candidates in the GOP primaries, even Gov. Kemp, who appointed her to the Senate in 2019.

He added that she’s filling a void the Georgia GOP left wide open.

“I think Georgia Republicans owe her a great deal of gratitude because she is doing what the Georgia Republican Party is not doing,” he said. “The current leadership of the Georgia Republican Party seems more obsessed with trying to curry favor with the former president and his supporters.”

David Shafer, the chair of the Georgia GOP, dismissed that criticism and said that he not only supports Greater Georgia, he’s donated to it.

He also said that as a nonpartisan group, Greater Georgia is a parallel effort that complements, not competes with, the party’s work.

“The Left has had a myriad of billionaire-funded nonpartisan groups - Fair Fight, New Georgia Project - working in concert with the Democratic Party,” Shafer said. “I am glad that we finally have one on the Right.”

The state party’s partnership with the RNC has 50-plus full-time staff that have made 1.5 million voter contacts, while Greater Georgia’s 12 full-time staff have coordinated 2 million contacts.

Loeffler said “there’s plenty of work to go around” and that she’s planning to stay in Georgia politics, behind the scenes or otherwise, as long as she thinks there’s a need.

Others, including Martha Zoller, could see more down the road for Loeffler, who took the opposite path of David Perdue, but may have created more opportunities for herself in the long run.

“She’s willing to do the work,” Zoller said, adding, “I think she’d be a great governor.”