OPINION: Kelly Loeffler on Trump, the GOP and 2020. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever know.’

Former US Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks at The Gathering conservative political conference in Buckhead on Friday, August 18, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Former US Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks at The Gathering conservative political conference in Buckhead on Friday, August 18, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is repeatedly listed as a potential Republican statewide candidate for 2026 for obvious reasons. She’s a billionaire with a vast national political network. And she’s remained so active in GOP politics since she lost her election to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in 2021 that she created a new statewide political operation, funded with millions of her own dollars.

It’s not clear if Loeffler wants to run again, nor whether she could win after a report released earlier this month revealed she was among dozens recommended for indictment by the Fulton County special grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump and the 2020 elections. DA Fani Willis did not indict Loeffler, but did charge Trump and 18 others with multiple felonies.

In an interview Thursday night, Loeffler was defiant in the face of the Fulton County investigation, which she dismissed as political, and vowed to speak out for whomever and whatever she wants in the future.

“There’s a cartoon that says. ‘Innocent until proven Republican,’ and that is exactly what this feels like,” she said of the Fulton County process. Loeffler said she was called as a witness by the special grand jury but did not know she had been recommended for indictment until the report was released.

“It’s almost impossible to believe this is happening in America, but it is, and I’m not going to be intimidated by it,” she said. “I’m not going to stop speaking out about it or about election integrity.”

The term “election integrity” became a blanket phrase for Republicans after the 2020 elections, covering everything from voter angst over new voting machines to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against him. Gov. Brian Kemp recently spoke out unequivocally to say the 2020 elections were not stolen. But on Thursday night, Loeffler declined repeatedly to do the same.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” she said. “I think what we have to say, however, is that election is in the past and it’s the Democrats that want to keep it alive. They want to run on January 6, they want to run on their platform that plays on that issue.”

Although Loeffler never repeated Trump’s false claims that the Georgia election was “rigged,” she and U.S. former Sen. David Perdue both called for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign days after the 2020 election for unspecified “failures.” She also promised at a rowdy Trump rally on January 4th that she would object to counting electoral votes for then-President-elect Joe Biden when Congress convened on Jan. 6. “We are going to get this done!” she said to cheers of “Stop the Steal!”

But Loeffler reversed course in the early morning hours of Jan. 7 after rioters attacked and ransacked the Capitol.

“It was clear that night needed to end,” she said Thursday. “But it also reinforced in me the need to do the work. And we in Georgia as Republicans have to look at how the 2020 election was run, because when people feel like their voice is not heard through elections, that’s a problem.”

Among the Republicans who applauded Loeffler’s speech on the Senate floor that night was former Vice President Mike Pence, who is now competing with Trump for the GOP nomination for president in 2024.

Loeffler has not endorsed Trump, Pence, or any other candidate in the presidential race and it’s unlikely she will before Georgia’s presidential primaries in March, she said. “Once the primary is over, we’ve got to have a ground game, voter contact, voter mobilization, volunteers, paid staff, and that’s what I’m building.”

Thinking about the elections after that, including the governor’s race in 2026, is not something other Republicans should be worried about, she said, even though the jockeying has already begun. Attorney General Chris Carr has let GOP donors know of his plans to run for governor in 2026, while Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who was also recommended for indictment by the special grand jury, is widely assumed to be preparing to run for the top job, too. Raffensperger’s name is also in the mix.

“It’s understandable that career politicians will be looking for their next job,” Loeffler said. “I am a businesswoman and trying to solve problems that I saw firsthand in our state in the 2020 cycle.”

Although no evidence supported Trump’s false claims about the Georgia elections, Loeffler said the lack of confidence among Republican voters in the state’s election systems has become a crisis in itself.

She started her Greater Georgia organization a month after the 2021 runoffs to address that crisis of confidence, as well as to conduct outreach to minority communities, and to engage in candidate recruitment. She’s focused now on the 2023 municipal elections in Georgia.

On Thursday night, Loeffler was moderating a conversation with Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. Mesha Mainor hosted by Greater Georgia and the Buckhead Young Republicans. It was Greater Georgia’s second large event of the week.

Rek LeCounte with the Young Republicans said Loeffler’s involvement in the party since she lost in 2021 has filled a void left by the state GOP.

“The state party is so focused on the former chairman and all those issues that it’s preventing them from being effective,” he said. “Whereas Kelly Loeffler has spent millions of dollars helping Republicans get elected. People know that and appreciate that.”

To LeCounte’s point, the state party is heavily engaged in raising money to pay the mounting legal fees for former chairman David Shafer and several others who have been indicted by Willis.

As Loeffler led the conversation with Mainor, she encouraged the Republicans there to focus on the upcoming 2023 races. She is not rattled by fellow Republicans already circling the waters for statewide races nor defensive about her actions up to this point. Her money, status and role as an informal leader in a party without one gives her the freedom to do what she wants. And this, for now, is it.

“I’m going to support whatever candidates I want to support and I encourage others to speak out,” she said. “And I hope I can lead by example in telling people that if we bend the knee to the political persecution that’s happening, we will lose the country.”