As the whole political world becomes obsessively focused on the January 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia, I meditated a bit at New York about the unforced errors afflicting one of the two Republican senators involved:
When Georgia governor Brian Kemp settled on Atlanta sports executive and socialite Kelly Loeffler as his choice to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated at the end of last year, he seemed to be making a shrewd calculation for his own and his party’s future in a blue-trending state. The GOP had been rapidly losing ground in the growing north Atlanta suburbs that had until very recently been its electoral stronghold, with moderate women leading the exodus.
She seemed the sort of novice politician such women might find appealing: an urbane woman, a Yankee and a Catholic, who had married her gazillionaire boss, quickly shown her own business chops, and become the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise. She lived in a mansion in Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead area, and kept up the social graces with charity work, while rubbing elbows with the diverse fans of the Dream. Compared to the usual Georgia Republican pols — blunt-talking Southern Baptist small-town lawyers and exurban developers with a few Ku Klux Klansmen on branches of the family tree — Loeffler was far more relatable to upwardly mobile suburbanites. And her politics seemed moderately conservative; she and her husband had been major donors to Mitt Romney in 2012, but had also donated to Democrats now and then. Kemp was also certainly aware that Loeffler would be running in 2020 in a special nonpartisan election to claim a full term, not a party primary, meaning she might be able to seize and hold the center and draw votes from moderates as well as conservatives. Best of all, Loeffler was very rich, and could not only self-fund her own 2020 campaign, but potentially a 2022 race for a full term, when she would share the ticket with Brian Kemp, who was expecting a tough rematch with Stacey Abrams.
For all these reasons, Kemp wasn’t unduly troubled when he introduced Loeffler to Donald Trump and the president remained adamant in wanting the Senate seat for his impeachment attack dog, Representative Doug Collins, a hard-core conservative and ordained Baptist minister from the foothills of the North Georgia mountains.
But Kemp’s estrangement with Trump and Trump’s grip on Georgia Republicans have made Loeffler’s political initiation a real nightmare. And in just a year she has transformed herself from a genial country-club Republican into a snarling ideologue boasting in ads that she’s “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and brown-nosing to Trump so aggressively that she’s turned her back on the governor to whom she owes everything.
To put it simply, Loeffler and her patron, Kemp, picked the wrong time and place to launch a respectably mainstream Republican political career. With conservative activists and Breitbart News egging him on to challenge the RINO Loeffler, Collins quickly launched a challenge to the appointed senator and led her in early polls, drawing strength from the bad press she received from stock deals she and her husband made that smelled like inside trading. (Loeffler was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee of wrongdoing but it didn’t dispel the unsavory aroma.) She counterattacked with tons of early ads Collins could not match, but it took many months for her to build a lead in a runoff race only one Republican could survive. (Democrats consolidated behind Raphael Warnock for one of the two certain runoff spots under Georgia’s arcane laws requiring a majority for victory.) Every step of the way Loeffler likely feared Trump would jump into the race with an endorsement of Collins. And so she campaigned as the most strongly pro-Trump member of the Senate.
As the election season reached its peak, Loeffler was in a right-wing frenzy. She triangulated against her colleagues and players in the WNBA, attacking their support for Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter, and probably ruining some actual friendships while offending the social conventions of her peer group, as the New York Times observed: Her “harsh criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement has run afoul of a longstanding convention in her adopted hometown, sometimes referred to as the Atlanta Way, in which the white corporate class has cultivated a level of solidarity with the city’s African-American leaders and civil rights movement.”
Loeffler reached her MAGA omega point in October when she pursued and secured the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the AR-15-wielding, QAnon-backing congressional candidate from Georgia who embodies the far frontiers of Trumpism. Nobody could call Loeffler a RINO anymore! Never mind that most of those in Loeffler’s old social circle in Buckhead are probably horrified by Greene, a woman whom veteran Georgia conservative commentator Erick Erickson called “batshit crazy.”
It may have all seemed worth it to Loeffler when she soundly beat Collins and made the cut for the January 5 general-election runoff, which will determine control of the Senate with her colleague David Perdue facing Jon Ossoff in the same election. But the runoff campaign has provided fresh demands for Loeffler extremism. Because her new idol Trump is refusing to accept his defeat in Georgia, Loeffler and Perdue have to go along with his delusional demands that Georgia’s Republican leadership help him overturn the election. On November 9, the two senators called for the resignation of the state’s Republican secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for the sin of certifying Biden’s victory. Both senators have refused to follow Mitch McConnell in acknowledging Biden as president-elect. And you have to figure it’s a matter of time before Loeffler in particular is forced to denounce Kemp, with Trump now attacking him relentlessly for refusing to illegally call the legislature into a special session to overturn the state’s election results.
Loeffler has firmly trapped herself in this intra-party feud that not only forces her to choose between her great benefactor and her new idol but that also threatens the GOP unity essential to a win on January 5. After all, here’s the standard set by her new great friend, Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter: “Every ‘Republican’ that isn’t fighting for @realDonaldTrump’s 2020 landslide victory is supporting the Chinese Communist Party takeover of America.” All righty then!
Greene’s screeds aren’t much more intemperate than Loeffler’s exceptionally nasty ads against Warnock, which specialize in taking old sermons from Warnock’s pulpit of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church wildly out of context, attacking its pastor and the Black religious tradition in ways that make you wonder if she’s risking divine lighting bolts.
Kelly Loeffler’s sold her soul to Trumpian extremism, and even with her enormous wealth, she won’t be able to buy it back.