Inside Loeffler’s all-out approach to defeat Collins in Georgia

The Republican’s strategy shapes battle for Senate control
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. speaks to supporters during a watch party at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Election Night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Atlanta. Loeffler will most likely face Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff.  Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. speaks to supporters during a watch party at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Election Night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Atlanta. Loeffler will most likely face Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff. Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

President-elect Joe Biden captured Georgia by razor-tight margins, but an equally vicious race down the ballot was not nearly as close.

Within hours of the polls closing on Nov. 3, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins conceded to fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, ending rather suddenly more than a year of brutal intraparty infighting that began even before Gov. Brian Kemp passed over the four-term congressman for the appointment.

Loeffler’s victory over Collins for a spot in the Jan. 5 runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock didn’t stun many Georgia politicos; poll after poll showed she had had a slight but steady lead over her rival.

But the six-point margin was greater than even some Loeffler insiders expected, and her campaign’s swarming all-out approach telegraphs the strategy she’ll employ against Warnock ahead of a 2021 showdown to determine control of the U.S. Senate.

In a sense, it was a stunning turnaround for a candidate who not long ago was openly asked if she would resign her seat after outrage over a series of stock transactions as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

By early April, her poll numbers were tanking and some prominent Georgia Republicans were privately preparing for when - not if - Loeffler received a plum position to drop out of the race. Collins and his allies stoked that speculation, predicting down-ballot carnage from the taint around her candidacy.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins

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Forced on the defensive, Loeffler tried to quickly shut down resignation talk while insisting, from the outset, that she did nothing wrong. By the end of the campaign, Collins talked more of a portrait of Mao Zedong that once hung on the walls of her Buckhead estate than he did the stock transactions.

More: How Biden ended Georgia’s 24-year Republican streak

Meanwhile, Loeffler aimed to make it exceedingly difficult for Collins' campaign to paint her as a moderate. She entered the race with a pledge to support President Donald Trump, touted her “100% pro-Trump” voting record and tried to parry every attempt to outflank her.

A vivid example came in September when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Collins drew attention for a provocative tweet about the justice’s abortion rights stance. But Loeffler grabbed headlines, too, by becoming the first U.S. senator to call for a speedy nomination of her successor.

She also helped counter claims that she was a squishy moderate with her outspoken opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, as she scrambled to turn her ownership stake in a WNBA team from a liability into a go-to talking point to rev up conservatives.

More: GOP attack on elections has voters doubting, too

Meanwhile, Loeffler’s vast wealth - the former financial executive is married to the owner of the New York Stock Exchange - allowed her to flood the airwaves with all manner of TV ads: Warm-and-fuzzy messages, issues-oriented spots, scathing attacks on Collins.

Some, too, were purely defensive, such as volley after volley of ads highlighting Collins' friendship with Stacey Abrams aimed at inoculating herself from jabs at her own past ties to the Democrat.

Here are some of the takeaways of her campaign:

Money money money: There’s no discussing Loeffler’s victory over Collins without highlighting her enormous financial advantage. She and her husband, financial magnate Jeff Sprecher, poured more than $31 million of their fortune into the campaign, easily outspending all 20 of her special election opponents combined.

The financial advantage went beyond the deluge on the airwaves. Her staffers and volunteers made 2 million phone calls, reaching Republican voters two, three, four or more times over the course of the campaign. Her campaign apparatus spread across the state, including Collins' hometown of Gainesville.

New Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia participates in a re-enactment of her swearing-in Monday with her husband, Jeff Sprecher, center, and Vice President Mike Pence. Polls show many Georgians still have not formed an opinion about Loeffler, while she’s also drawing scrutiny over how her new duties in the Senate could have an impact on the business dealings of her husband, the chairman and chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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Then there’s the outside spending, which included more than $5.5 million from a pro-Loeffler super PAC underwritten by Sprecher and some of his ultra-rich allies.

More: Battle for Senate majority keeps Georgia in spotlight

The group financed TV ads, hired strategists and pushed get-out-the-vote messaging. It also sent a glossy magazine – dubbed “Red Clay” – to high-intensity Republican votes with a cover image of Loeffler and Trump – and a mock ad for an Abrams book that panned Collins.

Though Collins out-raised Loeffler in the final stretch of the campaign, he couldn’t keep up with the tidal wave of cash. Instead, he relied more on earned media from campaign stops and frequent hits on Fox News that promoted himself as the more authentic conservative.

And Loeffler’s camp added a final twist in mid-October with an ad featuring UGA football giant Herschel Walker’s endorsement that aired just in time for the Georgia-Alabama game. Search engine traffic for Loeffler soared as the ad played during the showdown, and Walker became a stump-speech favorite.

A ‘cancel culture’ moment. In one of the most polarizing moves of the campaign, Loeffler in July objected to the WNBA’s plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and railed against “cancel culture.”

Days before the decision, Loeffler’s advisers were growing increasingly worried that her co-ownership of the Atlanta Dream franchise would pose a liability, particularly as league stars had embraced both Black Lives Matter and Warnock’s campaign.

They intended to turn it into one of her main strengths.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia, waits to speak in a television interview on Capitol Hill in Washington. WNBA players have urged people to vote against Atlanta Dream co-owner Loeffler, a Republican U.S. senator running to keep her seat in Georgia.

Credit: AJC file photo

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Credit: AJC file photo

Her criticism brought immediate derision from the Atlanta Dream and drew heaps of liberal fanfare to Warnock. But it also helped energize her base of supporters and steal some of Collins' thunder at a pivotal moment in his campaign.

More: A race for the base is fast underway in Georgia Senate runoffs

Soon, her opposition to Black Lives Matter became a staple of her campaign speech – and a central part of the Democratic case against her candidacy. It’s certain to continue as a motivating factor through the runoffs, when both campaigns scrounge for ways to re-activate their bases.

The nuts and bolts: Where did Loeffler win some of her biggest margins?

Look no further than the exurban ribbon stretching across Bartow, Cherokee, Forsyth and Paulding counties, which she carried easily. She held her own in metro Atlanta, finishing second to Warnock in most of the region, just as she did in the state’s mid-sized cities.

That helped offset Collins' lead in the northeast Georgia district he represented for more than a decade in Congress and the state Legislature centered on Hall County, where he amassed nearly 40,000 votes.

A campaign reset: Within minutes of the Daily Beast’s story about Loeffler’s stock transactions, the newly-appointed senator was trending on social media in all the worst ways.

Her campaign struggled at first to respond to the late-night allegation, and by the morning it was getting prominent attention locally and nationally. For her critics, it was affirmation that she and her husband were profiting off the pandemic.

The campaign swung back, insisting that any scrutiny would show she did nothing wrong. Two top staffers – Taylor Brown and Stephen Lawson – led the response.

Soon, Loeffler and Sprecher announced they would sell off stocks they own in individual companies and invest the money in exchange-traded and mutual funds. Reports that investigators would not charge Loeffler and that a Senate ethics panel dismissed charges were hailed as “vindication.”

Still, the issue hasn’t gone away. After Loeffler launched an opening round of broadsides at Warnock last week, one of the ads he aired in response evoked the stock trades and closed with a parting shot: “Kelly is for Kelly. Warnock is for us.”