ATLANTA (AP) — In the fight to retain her U.S. Senate seat, Republican Kelly Loeffler has boasted she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and has a “100% Trump voting record.” She has backed the president's baseless allegations of voting fraud and rallied with a far-right candidate who expressed support for a conspiracy theory that sees Democrats as part of a Satanic child sex ring.
It’s not the type of campaign that supporters expected from the superrich former finance executive. Before she entered politics in 2019, Loeffler ran in Atlanta’s elite circles and didn't appear fired up by ultraconservative zeal. Her appointment to the Senate by Gov. Brian Kemp in December last year was widely seen as a way for the Georgia GOP to appeal to moderate suburban women.
So as she heads into a runoff election on Jan. 5 against Democrat Raphael Warnock, Loeffler, 50, faces lingering questions about her political identity and her alignment with President Donald Trump. With Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, would she be the pro-Trump firebrand who slammed Black Lives Matter and claimed Democrats want to overturn the country's way of life? Or would she heed the plea for bipartisanship made in a farewell speech by her predecessor, retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson?
Loeffler has no political experience other than her year in the Senate, and her campaign has not focused on detailed policy proposals that might offer clues about a future approach. For critics, that leaves her background to parse.
For years, Loeffler was a deep-pocketed donor to mainstream Republicans. She and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, hobnobbed with Mitt Romney and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his presidential campaign in 2012, when he was the party's nominee. She has also helped Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Chris Dodd.
Loeffler also has shown some inclination toward bipartisan comity. As co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, a WNBA team, she posed with Democrat Stacey Abrams on the court when Abrams was running for governor of Georgia in 2018.
In one of her first public appearances after being appointed senator, Loeffler followed Isakson’s example and attended a ceremony on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached and Warnock is now pastor. Isakson regularly went to Ebenezer on the holiday.
Critics say Loeffler took a hard-right turn once she drew a challenge from staunch Trump ally and fellow Republican Doug Collins. Collins, a member of the U.S. House, attacked her for donating to Romney and appearing with Abrams. On the other side of the coin, Loeffler’s campaign accused Collins of voting with Abrams more than 300 times when they were in the state legislature together.
Loeffler soon went out of her way to hype her conservative credentials — most notably campaigning with Marjorie Taylor Greene even after the GOP nominee for Congress in northern Georgia made racists remarks and embraced the online conspiracy fiction QAnon in a video. QAnon supporters believe Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state" and a child sex trafficking ring they say is linked to Democrats.
Loeffler's moves have not won over some of her targeted voters.
“She’s not genuine, and if she’s elected, I fully believe she will be another Romney moderate Republican, that she will revert back to her true self," said Debbie Dooley, a national tea party organizer in Georgia. Dooley said she was not going to vote for Loeffler, but would cast a ballot for Georgia's other Republican senator in a runoff, David Perdue.
Loeffler's campaign did not make her available for an interview and did not respond to questions sent by email. She has insisted, however, that she is a lifelong conservative, and since her appointment she has railed against socialism, abortion and gun restrictions.
In July, amid protests following the killing of George Floyd, she sent a letter to the commissioner of the WNBA objecting to the league’s plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, saying it “promoted violence and destruction across the country.” Players on her team — many of whom are Black — responded by wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts. Loeffler doubled down on her criticism, saying the protest was “more proof that the out-of-control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them.”
Loeffler has refused to acknowledge Trump's loss to Biden. She expressed support for a far-fetched lawsuit by the attorney general of Texas demanding that justices toss Electoral College votes in four states, including her state of Georgia, where Kemp certified them. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the suit.
Former Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who also represented Georgia, said he is confident that Loeffler will find ways to work with Democrats if she continues in the Senate.
“She’s on a very steep learning curve right now,” he said. “I think over the last year she has gotten a real appreciation for the job, of what it means to be a senator, and I think she’s learning that you have to develop relationships across the aisle.”
At her core, Loeffler is a real conservative, said Cole Muzio, a former Republican consultant who heads an influential conservative policy group in Georgia.
“I think she ran a very authentic campaign in terms of her conservative credentials," he said. "I think at the same time, a lot of the attacks on her hindered the ability from the outset to really share a lot of her personal narrative, which I think has sometimes gotten lost.”
Loeffler has tried to play up that backstory. In an early ad, she stressed her roots “working in the fields” and “showing cattle” while growing up on her family's farm and said she waited tables to pay for school.
“We lived simply,” she has said. “Life revolved around farming, church, school and 4-H.”
Today, Loeffler is among the wealthiest members of Congress. In 2009, she and her husband spent more than $10 million on a European-style mansion named Descante in Atlanta's tony Buckhead neighborhood. She loaned her campaign more than $20 million before beating Collins in November to advance to the runoff and has traveled the state in her private jet.
She earned an MBA from DePaul University and worked in financial services before moving to Georgia in 2002 and joining Intercontinental Exchange, a company founded by Sprecher that operates the New York Stock Exchange and other marketplaces for securities and commodities. Sprecher is still the company's CEO.
Loeffler's connection to the company poses potentially deep conflicts of interest on Senate matters dealing with the regulation of financial markets. Loeffler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement in February that she would never take a vote that benefits her or her family.
The senator has also faced scrutiny for offloading parts of her investment portfolio and purchasing new stocks as Congress was receiving briefings on the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic. She has said she played no part in the trades and has not attempted to profit from her time in the Senate.
“I'm here because I've earned everything I got,” she said at a debate in October when Collins was still in the race. "I am the true conservative."