Wary of ‘moderate’ brand, Loeffler aims for the hard right in Georgia Senate race

Sen. Kelly Loeffler gives a thumbs up as she is recognized by President Donald Trump during his visit in July to Atlanta. Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is running against her in a special election for her seat, have both worked hard in trying to win Trump's favor. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Sen. Kelly Loeffler gives a thumbs up as she is recognized by President Donald Trump during his visit in July to Atlanta. Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is running against her in a special election for her seat, have both worked hard in trying to win Trump's favor. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Kelly Loeffler was picked for a coveted U.S. Senate seat partly to help persuade wavering moderate voters to return to the Republican fold.

A parade of WNBA players who wore shirts Tuesday supporting her Democratic rival was a reminder of how sharply her political strategy has changed.

The scene that played out was a remarkable rebuke to the Georgia Republican: Players for the Atlanta Dream, the franchise she co-owns, and other teams across the league, in a coordinated show of defiance, advertised their support for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who is running against her.

Yet the latest fallout over her decision to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement also played directly into her case in the tight November contest, a jumbled special election where she’s competing more for hard-right conservative votes than the independent voters she once hoped to entice.

That’s because she can’t afford to get outflanked by another candidate in the race, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman whom President Donald Trump initially lobbied Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint. Collins has vigorously tried to frame Loeffler as an inauthentic appointee who is paying lip service to Republican causes.

“A play to the middle in this scenario is no man’s land,” said Brian Robinson, a veteran Republican strategist who is publicly neutral in the race. “When GOP voters have a choice among conservatives, you have to give them red meat. You’re losing ground if you’re discussing the veggie side options.”

ExploreInside how Kemp picked Loeffler for the U.S. Senate

This was not what Kemp’s allies dreamed up when the governor picked Loeffler for the seat over hundreds of other applicants. She was viewed as an outsider who could help win over moderate female voters in metro Atlanta who have steadily fled the GOP, threatening the party’s grip on Georgia politics.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler passes by her top Republican rival in November's special election, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, upon the arrival of President Donald Trump in July at at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler passes by her top Republican rival in November's special election, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, upon the arrival of President Donald Trump in July at at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

A former financial executive, Loeffler quickly pledged her support to Trump and conservative causes such as gun rights, but little else was known about the political newcomer’s stances or record. It was a chance to shape her own image.

Collins’ decision to run upended the dynamic — and presaged a sharper shift to the right. In the special election to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, Loeffler shares the ballot with nearly two dozen other contenders jockeying for a spot in a likely January runoff.

Soon, Loeffler was making sure there was little daylight between her and Trump. Quite possibly the richest member of Congress, she has devoted chunks of her fortune — she’s pledged to spend at least $20 million on her campaign — to frame herself as a devout conservative.

“She’s not trying to appeal to a broader coalition of voters. Rather than present a different view of what Republicans in Georgia should look like, she’s decided that’s not the path right now,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a Georgia State University political scientist.

That could already pay dividends. Long trailing in many polls to Collins, she’s steadily caught up in recent surveys. A Monmouth University poll of Georgia voters released last week showed her inching ahead of Collins. She’s set aside at least $6 million for new ads this fall promoting her message, and she hired additional operatives to lead her grassroots efforts.

Kelly Loeffler, left, and Mary Brock have co-owned Atlanta's WNBA franchise, the Dream, since 2011. She recently attacked the league's decision to support and honor Black Lives Matter initiatives. That led to a coordinated backlash Tuesday from WNBA players, including members of the Dream, who wore shirts urging voters to support the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running against Loeffler's in November's special election. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) </p>
Kelly Loeffler, left, and Mary Brock have co-owned Atlanta's WNBA franchise, the Dream, since 2011. She recently attacked the league's decision to support and honor Black Lives Matter initiatives. That led to a coordinated backlash Tuesday from WNBA players, including members of the Dream, who wore shirts urging voters to support the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running against Loeffler's in November's special election. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) </p>

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Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Trump’s plummeting approval rating, tied partly to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has made it even more difficult to target a message aimed at moderate voters. The race is so tight in Georgia that both Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden have recently begun airing ads in the state.

But Steigerwalt said that the short-term realities risk a longer-term policy shift crucial to the party’s future in Georgia. With Democrats steadily narrowing the electoral gap, Republicans are on the defensive.

“She’s had the opportunity to redefine what it looks like to be a Republican in Georgia. It’s an argument Republicans need to make, since we are seeing suburban support eroding away,” the professor said. “But she hasn’t embraced it.”

‘No choice’

The sharpest example of her strategy came in July when she staked her campaign on an attack on the WNBA’s decision to support and honor Black Lives Matter initiatives. Loeffler, who has co-owned the Dream since 2011, urged the league to instead feature U.S. flag patches on each uniform.

“I want to speak for all Americans who feel like they don’t have a voice, who feel like they’re going to be canceled if they speak out against a political movement,” she said at a recent campaign rally. “That’s not freedom, that’s not America.”

ExploreQ&A: Why Kemp picked Loeffler over Collins

That brought fierce pushback from all corners. Fans threatened boycotts, current and former players blasted her stance, Democrats urged her to quit the league and the Dream issued a statement denouncing the co-owner of the team. “It is not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality,” it said.

Then on Tuesday, dozens of players across the league stepped up their criticism by urging fans to vote against Loeffler and support Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“It was something we talked through and wanted to be strategic, intentional about our words and language,” said Elizabeth Williams, the Dream’s captain. “We wanted to make sure whatever action was taken that we felt like in doing so all the ideas we had been focused on weren’t lost.”

Leading candidates in November's special election to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term are U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to succeed Isakson; and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and the candidate backed by numerous high-profile Democrats.
Leading candidates in November's special election to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term are U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to succeed Isakson; and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and the candidate backed by numerous high-profile Democrats.

Collins has given her no safe harbor on the right flank. He’s called her a political phony who wasn’t vocal about earlier league initiatives, such as a promotion that allowed fans to donate a portion of ticket sales to Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health care organization vilified by some conservatives.

(Loeffler has said the Dream opted out of that revenue-sharing program.)

And he assailed her for not speaking out against the league’s embrace of Black Lives Matter initiatives earlier. WNBA teams and players have vocally backed the social justice movement since 2016, when league stars first wore warmup jerseys promoting the cause.

“She just has no moorings,” Collins said Tuesday during a campaign stop in northwest Georgia. “It’s what happens when you have never had to take a stand on anything — a history where she doesn’t comport to what she wants to run for now.”

He added: “It’s all about smoke and mirrors. It’s about trying to make you believe you’re something that you’re not. You know who I am — I’m Doug Collins.”

The strategy has left Warnock largely ignored, as the two Republicans trade fire at each other on a daily basis. Still, some polls show the pastor struggling to keep pace with fellow Democratic candidate Matt Lieberman, an educator and son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, despite widespread support from party leaders.

“She has to essentially ignore Warnock and other Democrats and just focus on Collins,” said Ceasar Mitchell, a former Atlanta City Council president and Democratic strategist. “She’s got no other choice in order to ensure a spot in the January 2021 runoff.”

ExploreBehind the WNBA fight that Kelly Loeffler sought

Loeffler’s backers predicted her stance has more widespread appeal than it seems. Jennifer Lundstedt, an Alpharetta real estate agent, said she’s so puzzled by the WNBA’s Black Lives Matter efforts she immediately reaches for the TV to flip the channel when it comes up. Loeffler, she said, struck a chord.

”When she’s speaking about this, I feel like it’s my voice. Suburban moms like me, our voice isn’t heard at all. And it’s frustrating,” said Lundstedt, a mother of two.”Everyone wants to respect and value the oppressed, but we also don’t want to devalue others. She’s not being cowed. She’s saying we should stop dividing against one another.”

Collins supporters predicted his deep political roots and political track record, including serving as a chief Trump defender against impeachment, will overwhelm Loeffler’s attempts to curry favor with the base.

“He’s a pit bull — he’s a Trump pit bull. I like the fact that he battles for our people,” said Bruce Potts, a retired educator running for the Gordon County Commission who showed up to at a meet-and-greet in Resaca.

“And he’s got connections here,” Potts said. “When my friends speak well of Doug Collins, you know it speaks well for him.”

Staff writer Bria Felicien and The Associated Presa contributed to this report.

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