When Georgia’s Republican governor appointed former Wall Street executive Kelly Loeffler to the US Senate in December last year, he thought she would appeal to moderate suburban women who had grown weary of Donald Trump.
So it was a surprise to many when, in her very first television appearance, Ms Loeffler described herself as pro-gun rights, “pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall”.
Now, as she tries to fight off a strong challenge that could help determine control of the US Senate in a special election on Tuesday, she has lurched even further to the right.
Two weeks ago, wearing a trucker hat with an American flag patch, Ms Loeffler beamed as she accepted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a controversial Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives who has promoted QAnon conspiracy theories.
This week she told a local reporter she was “unfamiliar” with Mr Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, a recording from 2015 in which the then reality TV star bragged in crude terms about groping women without their consent.
Ms Loeffler’s fate in Georgia is being closely watched by both Republicans and Democrats nationwide. The Grand Old Party controls the 100-member upper chamber of Congress, 53-48, but Democrats are looking to take back the majority. With Georgia, a one-time Republican stronghold, increasingly seen as a swing state, the Loeffler contest is just one of a handful of races that political analysts consider a “toss-up”.
President Trump made clear that he preferred Doug Collins, one of his most vocal supporters in Congress, to fill the Georgia spot left by Johnny Isakson’s departure for health reasons.
But Governor Brian Kemp thought Ms Loeffler, who had never held elected office, would be more likely to connect with women in neighbourhoods such as Buckhead, the affluent area north of downtown Atlanta where she and her husband, the Intercontinental Exchange chief executive Jeffrey Sprecher, own a 15,000 square foot home.
Ms Loeffler’s Trumpian transformation has mystified some of her former associates on Wall Street, who had seen her as pleasant, friendly and serious, but frequently guarded.
“I’m very surprised. She’s not the person I knew,” said one person who often met Ms Loeffler when she was at ICE.
“I felt it was Jeff Sprecher who had the interest in politics and was more likely to run,” the person added. “Jeff always struck me as a moderate Republican.”
Ms Loeffler joined Intercontinental Exchange in 2002 and helped Mr Sprecher turn it from an upstart into a $53bn giant of electronic markets and owner of the New York Stock Exchange. Before she left for politics, she was chief executive of Bakkt, an ICE subsidiary for bitcoin products. She remains co-owner of Atlanta Dream, the women’s basketball team.
Political analysts say her tack to the right makes sense, at least in the short term. Under arcane Georgia rules, Ms Loeffler, 49, is seeking to hold on to her seat in a “jungle primary” against 19 other candidates, including Mr Collins, who is 54. If no candidate earns over half of the vote on Tuesday, the top two finishers will advance to a run-off election, to be held in early January.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics described it as a “quasi-primary environment”. “She is trying to finish as the top Republican, not as the top candidate overall,” he said.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll out this week of likely voters showed Mr Collins narrowly ahead of Ms Loeffler, at 21 per cent compared to her 20 per cent. Raphael Warnock, 51, a Democrat and pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr preached, had the largest share, with 34 per cent.
“She is running a partisan primary in the middle of an open primary for office, and she is doing so with good reason,” said Andra Gillespie of Emory University in Atlanta.
“You are not going to see defections from the centre, and you are certainly not going to see defections from the left,” she added. “What [Loeffler and Collins] are both betting on is that the median Republican voter is pretty conservative and pro-Trump.”
Is Georgia up for grabs?
Georgia is the only state where both US Senate seats are up for grabs this election cycle. Under the state’s unique electoral rules, both races could end up in a run-off, with a second election held in early January.
Ms Loeffler is looking to hold on to her seat in a special election, after she was appointed in December last year to replace longtime senator Johnny Isakson, who retired early due to health concerns.
Unlike in other states, there was no primary in Georgia to determine a Republican and Democratic candidate for the special election. Instead, election day on Tuesday will be a “jungle primary”, with 20 candidates, including multiple Republicans and multiple Democrats, on the ballot. A winner could technically be decided on Tuesday, but if no candidate earns more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a run-off in early January.
In the other Senate race, incumbent Republican senator David Perdue, 70, is facing a formidable challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff. The 33-year-old Mr Ossoff went viral this week after he repeatedly slammed his opponent in a televised debate, at one point referencing reports that the senator invested in a company that produces personal protective equipment on the same day in January that senators received a briefing on coronavirus.
“It’s not just that you are a crook, senator. It’s that you are attacking the health of the people you represent,” Mr Ossoff said. “You did say that Covid-19 was no deadlier than the flu. You did say that there would be no significant uptick in cases. All the while, you were looking after your own assets, and your own portfolio.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this week showed the two men effectively tied, with Mr Perdue at 45 per cent and Mr Ossoff at 46 per cent. Under Georgia’s esoteric rules, that race will also head for a run-off if neither man gets over half of the votes. Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel had the backing of 4 per cent of likely voters in the AJC poll.
Ms Gillespie added, however, that it remained to be seen whether the rightward lurch would work against Ms Loeffler in a run-off scenario, where she would need to appeal to centrists as well as Trump supporters.
The Collins campaign has sought to portray Ms Loeffler as a “Republican in name only”. She and Mr Sprecher have donated millions to Republican campaigns over the years, but made some notable contributions to Democrats, too. In 2007 Mr Sprecher gave $2,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Five years later Ms Loeffler donated the same amount to Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic senator from Michigan.
Mr Collins has also repeatedly used Ms Loeffler’s personal wealth and spending on her own campaign as a wedge issue, saying Georgia “can’t be bought”.
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Ms Loeffler was in hot water earlier this year after congressional records showed she and Mr Sprecher sold as much as $3.1m of stock over three weeks until February 14, shortly before US markets crashed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The US justice department later dropped its investigation into the matter.
Ms Loeffler’s campaign declined multiple requests for comment for this story.
Whether or not Ms Loeffler edges out Mr Collins, most analysts expect the race will head to a run-off in January. Depending on how closely fought Senate races shake out in other parts of the country, control of the upper chamber could hang in the balance — setting the stage for an unprecedented level of national attention on Georgia throughout the US holiday season.
“If control of the chamber comes down to this last seat, then all eyes are going to be on Georgia, and all hands are going to be on deck in terms of trying to claim that seat,” Ms Gillespie said. “We are going to see record-breaking spending, mind-boggling spending, statewide.”
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