Kelly Loeffler had a tumultuous first year in the Senate.
Now, the chief executive-turned-Republican lawmaker from Georgia is in the final days of a just-as-turbulent bid to keep her seat. It will culminate with a January 5 runoff election that will also determine whether her party maintains control of the upper congressional chamber.
When it comes to securing that victory, President Donald Trump has not made Loeffler’s — or the party’s — job any easier.
The difficulties started in late 2019, when Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat vacated by Sen. Johnny Isakson, who had resigned citing health concerns. Back then, Trump made clear that he preferred Rep. Doug Collins, a staunchly conservative ally.
After Loeffler’s appointment, Trump questioned whether she could be reelected, even as she made public overtures to appease him. Collins, who defended the president in House of Representatives impeachment proceedings, ended up challenging Loeffler in November, splitting the Republican vote and triggering the runoff election against Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock.
But perhaps most damaging to Loeffler’s chances to win the runoff are Trump’s baseless claims that various forms of fraud cost him the election. Incensed by Joe Biden’s historic win in Georgia, he tapped Collins to oversee a recount team. The president has also excoriated the state’s Republican leaders, calling Kemp a “Republican in name only,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan his “puppet,” and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger an “enemy of the people.”
The president’s allegations and insults have divided Georgia Republicans, with some in the pro-Trump contingent suggesting Loeffler is insufficiently supportive of the Trump’s attempts to discredit election results. At a campaign rally this week, she had to pause when the crowd began chanting “Stop the steal!”
The president has said he will return to Georgia the night before voting to campaign for Loeffler, along with Republican Sen. David Perdue, who is in a separate runoff election there. But it is unclear how forcefully Trump will support the two candidates, or whether he will again spend his time on the ground claiming the election was “rigged” against him, thereby depriving Loeffler and Perdue of what could be their most effective political message.
“Their best argument is to say, ‘We’re the check and balance on a Biden administration,’” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump’s presidency. “But they can’t say that is so” because “they’re not allowed to say President-elect Biden,” he added.
Loeffler is a political newcomer. When Kemp appointed her to the Senate last December, she was the chief executive of Bakkt, a newly formed subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the financial and commodities markets company founded and run by her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher.
Kemp’s decision to install Loeffler was a move to shore up support for Republicans running in 2020 and 2022 among the suburban White women who had started to turn away from the party in the 2018 midterm elections, leading to the Democratic takeover of the House. In doing so, Kemp rejected Trump’s preference that Collins be appointed to the seat.
Loeffler was not an ardent Kemp supporter. She and Sprecher had donated money to political candidates and causes — with most, but not all, going to Republicans — but none to Kemp’s 2018 campaign. During the bruising gubernatorial race, Loeffler even appeared with Kemp’s Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams, embracing her during a game played by the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that Loeffler co-owns.
Loeffler was likewise not a fervent backer of Trump. In 2012, she and Sprecher donated a combined $1.5 million to the Super PAC Restore Our Future that supported Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In the 2016 cycle, Loeffler and Sprecher gave $25,000 each to the Republican National Committee but nothing to Trump’s campaign or affiliated Super PACs, according to government data collected by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Later on, in the months after Isakson announced he would be retiring, Loeffler contributed the maximum allowed by law to Kemp’s 2022 reelection. Sprecher, in May 2020, donated $1 million to a pro-Trump Super PAC.
By that time, though, Trump and his advisers were already worried about Loeffler’s prospects. She had promised to self-fund as much as $20 million to fend off her competitors, but Collins portrayed Loeffler as insufficiently conservative and used the video of her with Abrams to bolster his argument. He began cutting into Loeffler’s support, bolstering Warnock’s standing in the polls.
The same month, the Justice Department dropped its probe of stock trades that Loeffler, as well as Perdue, made after attending a January coronavirus briefing. To avoid conflicts of interest, Loeffler and Sprecher divested their individual stock holdings and she stepped down from an Agriculture Committee subpanel that oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates companies such as ICE.
As Loeffler’s finances dominated headlines, she moved to align herself with Trump’s policies. She cosponsored a bill that would block states that issue driver licenses to undocumented immigrants from receiving federal funds. She sought to distance herself from the WNBA’s partnership with Planned Parenthood by supporting various anti-abortion legislation and urged the Trump administration to not allow the use of fetal tissue in coronavirus vaccine development.
When the WNBA, after nationwide protests of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, announced in July that its 2020 season would be dedicated to racial justice, Loeffler said she was “incredibly disappointed” in the league’s decision and that she was “adamantly opposed” to the Black Lives Matter movement. Dream players wore shirts to a televised game that said “Vote Warnock.”
As the November election drew closer, Loeffler became a more outspoken defender of the president’s actions in addition to his policies. She said she was “not familiar” with Trump’s comments about grabbing women by their genitals in the 2005 Access Hollywood tape that surfaced during his 2016 campaign. She campaigned alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene, who supported QAnon-perpetuated conspiracy theories during her successful House bid. She joined the pro-Trump One American News Network for an interview about how the “woke mob” was trying to “cancel” her. Her campaign ran an ad boasting that she was in lockstep with Trump and “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”
In November, Loeffler received about 26 percent of the vote; Collins won 20 percent and Warnock 33 percent. Since no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the special election will be determined by the runoff in January.
Loeffler’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.
Loeffler and Perdue have been holding joint events, and experts agree that their fates are likely intertwined — voters in the special election have little incentive to split their tickets. Republicans are currently poised to hold 50 of the Senate’s 100 seats and Democrats 46 seats (plus two independents that caucus with their party). Republicans need to win at least one of the Georgia seats to keep their majority. There have already been a record number of early ballots cast.
“Whichever side does the better job of getting their people to turn out is going to win,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University professor of political science.
The challenge for Loeffler and Perdue is that there are already signs that Trump’s grousing about the election results, and the alleged complicity of Georgia Republicans, could depress party turnout. The two senators have echoed Trump’s grievances against Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, and called on him to resign. Trump has suggested Collins should challenge Kemp in the gubernatorial primary. Pro-Trump factions have even called for a boycott of the Senate races, handing Democrats an opportunity.
“Obviously Trump is not helping,” Heye said. “And let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not worried about the U.S. Senate or the future of the Republican Party and, if anything, the more it fails, the better it could potentially be for him.”
“This is not about saving the Senate,” he added.