The Georgia Businesswoman Who Could Keep the Senate in GOP Hands
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because control of the U.S. Senate could come down to Georgia.
By Nick Fouriezos
In 2013, Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host, lost a heated race to Doug Collins, a Baptist pastor who would go on to become one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress. In the aftermath, she got a call: Would Zoller be willing to talk to an Atlanta businesswoman and major GOP bankroller about what it’s like to run for office as a Republican woman? Which is how Zoller ended up in the gleaming office of Kelly Loeffler, a senior vice president at the Fortune 500 company Intercontinental Exchange.
Loeffler cut an intimidating figure with her résumé alone, not to mention standing out as a blonde, 5-foot-11 co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. But Loeffler had humble roots, growing up on her family’s soybean and corn farm in Stanford, Illinois, where she played varsity basketball and woodwinds in the marching band. And her questions reflected that sensibility. “I told her simple things that women candidates need to know: blocking out time to get your hair done, figuring out someone to carry your purse or bag — because it doesn’t look good to carry it yourself — and understanding that sexism in the Republican Party can be a shrouded thing,” Zoller recalls. “And I remember her laughing at this: I told her that there are a lot of bad pictures that can be used against you in mailers.”
Loeffler has come a long way since those days of discussing campaign aesthetics from the safety of the C-suite. The 49-year-old was appointed in December to a vacant Georgia Senate seat (initially over Trump’s objections) with the hopes that she would appeal to moderate suburban women. However, the multimillionaire has had a wild foray into politics since, marked by the COVID pandemic and being forced to veer hard right in a “jungle primary” in which her biggest rival was, of all people, the aforementioned Collins. To outflank him, the once uncontroversial candidate embraced Trump, campaigned with Marjorie Taylor Greene — the congresswoman-elect who has expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory — and even cut an ad claiming she was “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”
It worked, with Loeffler besting Collins to finish second Tuesday night behind Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta. But Loeffler now must tack back to the middle in a Jan. 5 runoff election that could well decide party control of the Senate, along with the other Georgia seat at play featuring Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. And that is no easy thing, particularly in a state where the suburban vote tacked strongly toward the Democrats, causing the presidential results to be too close to call as of Thursday morning after Trump won by more than 211,000 votes four years ago.
“Things are lining up very well for her now,” argues Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former communications director for ex-Gov. Nathan Deal. “She’ll pivot on her messaging. She has the resources to immediately stay on the offensive and begin to redefine herself for a general election electorate.”
When Gov. Brian Kemp selected Loeffler, the Georgia Republican did so thinking the conservative businesswoman could help stem a blue wave emerging in the Atlanta suburbs — even defying Trump, who reportedly preferred Collins. And Loeffler staked herself out to appeal to the state’s conservatism with her values, criticizing “abortion on demand,” but also striking a soft tone by citing “hard work, faith and family” as not a slogan but “the foundation of everything I believe.”
When Collins entered the Senate primary in January against the state GOP establishment’s wishes, it forced Loeffler to quickly fend off any weakness on her right, while also learning on the job in the U.S. Senate in Washington. “A lot of people were unsure about her conservative credentials. They called her things like ‘Buckhead Barbie’ — and that was largely from Republican women!” Zoller says.
Loeffler had to prove herself serious, and she did. As a freshman in a year interrupted by the pandemic and a national election, Loeffler co-sponsored 137 bills and was the lead sponsor on 35 bills, although none of the latter became law. “The first thing she did was hit the ground running,” Zoller says.
But Loeffler quickly faced attacks — from Collins, as well as Democrats, particularly after it was revealed that she dumped millions of dollars in stocks after a classified COVID-19 briefing. The self-dealing accusation hit hard and Loeffler had to pivot, as early polls showed her flagging. She began decrying Collins as a “career politician” and aligning herself closely to Trump. She accepted the endorsement of Greene. Greene’s conspiratorial views are controversial, but geographic support was important. “Bottom line, Kelly needed northwest Georgia,” Zoller says. And the “Attila the Hun” ad, while reaching a huge audience, was painted as extremist and ridiculed online. “She did what she had to do,” Robinson says, admitting that Loeffler created some targets for herself.
When Atlanta became a flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death this summer, Loeffler publicly denounced the movement — even writing a scathing letter to the WNBA that led to her Atlanta Dream’s players calling for her resignation and endorsing her opponent, Warnock. That last tack especially hurt, as Loeffler used to plan her work trips around the Dream’s schedule and could often be seen at center court at home games, even talking Xs and Os with the players in the locker room afterward. “That was a real turning point,” Robinson says. “Many of these CEO candidates make miserable politicians. They’re not used to people attacking them, to push back. And she made that transition. She showed she could be tough.”
Her anti-BLM stance and conservative politics was inexcusable to some in Atlanta, once called the “Black mecca of the South” by Ebony magazine. And while Loeffler dirtied herself fending off Collins, the Democrat Warnock was able to run a positive campaign devoid of major attacks and controversy. “It cost everybody to have Doug in the race,” Zoller says. “Loeffler has just two months to piece the GOP back together and win back the voters she alienated with her out-of-touch campaign,” the state Democratic party chair, Nikema Williams, said in a statement Wednesday.
Still, Loeffler and her allies believe she has the advantage in the runoff, given Georgia’s advantage with registered Republican voters, who have a history of showing up in the sometimes low-turnout affairs. “It opens up a lot of possibilities to tell a softer story,” Robinson says, the motivational tale of a Midwestern farm girl who moved South, became a successful CEO and, now, a U.S. senator. Her next résumé item could very well be keeping the Senate in Republican hands.