ATLANTA (AP) — Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler stepped out of a Humvee on a foggy morning in northwest Georgia wearing an American flag trucker hat to accept the endorsement of a congressional candidate who has expressed support for baseless QAnon conspiracy theories and made disparaging comments about Black people, Muslims and Jews.
Loeffler smiled and nodded as Marjorie Taylor Greene praised her as “the most conservative Republican" running in Georgia's multi-candidate special election for the U.S. Senate seat Loeffler was appointed to 10 months ago.
“What impressed me with Kelly is I found out that she believes a lot of the same things that I believe,” Greene said at the Oct. 15 event.
Loeffler was appointed to the Senate on the hope that she would help the GOP hold on to moderates — especially suburban women — uncomfortable with the party’s right turn under President Donald Trump. Instead, the wealthy businesswoman has followed Trump’s lead and then some, embracing people like Greene, a political figure even many conservatives consider too extreme.
Her choice has many Republicans worried about how she'd fare in an anticipated January runoff election in a state where Republican dominance is slipping and victory could depend on more moderate voters and independents.
Loeffler spokeswoman Caitlin O’Dea said Loeffler was not available to be interviewed for this story and declined to answer questions.
In her quest to win a spot in the runoff, Loeffler has been locked in a brutal battle for the conservative base of the Republican Party with GOP Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman and one of Trump’s most visible defenders in the U.S. House. Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, has been able to consolidate support among Democrats with relative ease.
A Jan. 5, 2021 runoff between the race’s top two candidates — likely Warnock and either Loeffler or Collins — will be required if nobody wins more than 50% in November.
Loeffler took office this past January after being appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to replace retiring GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was known for being a consensus builder willing to reach across the aisle to get things done.
Before her appointment, Loeffler was a relatively unknown figure — the co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA basketball team, CEO of a cryptocurrency trading platform and the wife of Jeffrey Sprecher, who leads the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange.
Once her appointment was made public, Loeffler quickly moved to bolster her conservative bona fides.
“I’m a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall,” she said at a December news conference as Kemp announced her as his pick for the Senate seat.
Soon after, Collins, who sought the appointment himself but was passed over, mounted a bid to challenge her, sparking a scramble among the two top-tier candidates to shore up support from hardcore GOP voters.
“Loeffler and Collins are essentially running in a primary within a special election,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia. “If either candidate had run some play-to-the-middle, appeal-to-moderates campaign, they would be dead in the water. There’s just no market.”
Right out of the gate, Loeffler introduced several anti-abortion legislative proposals. “Since coming to the Senate, I’ve co-sponsored four pro-life bills to end taxpayer funding for abortion, roll back the scope of Roe v. Wade, and increase criminal penalties for medical professionals performing illegal abortions,” she boasted in February.
More recently, she has staunchly defended Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, sparked a battle with WNBA players after objecting to the league’s initiatives to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, sponsored legislation to pull federal funding from schools that allow transgender girls to participate in girls' sports, and run a series of TV ads calling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun."
On Monday, when six of the top candidates in the race met in their first debate, Loeffler was asked if she could name something Trump has said or done that she disagreed with. She responded: “No” and touted a “100% voting record with President Trump.”
Perhaps most striking has been Loeffler's embrace of Greene, a U.S. House candidate from northwest Georgia who has expressed support for QAnon, a baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory, and made racist remarks in a series of online videos. While Greene has been denounced by some Republicans — a primary opponent used the slogan “All of the conservative, none of the embarrassment” — Loeffler has defended her.
“Look, I don’t know anything about QAnon, and I know how the media twists people’s words,” Loeffler said after enthusiastically accepting Greene's endorsement.
“What we agree on is that we are fighting socialism. We are promoting conservative values. And I’m not going to stand for attacks on her character because she has stood for American values,” Loeffler said.
Collins' campaign has sought to push back on Loeffler's conservative credentials, calling her “supposedly conservative,” a “pretend gun owner” and accusing her of having supported pro-abortion groups and candidates before taking office. Loeffler has said Collins is lying about her record.
Whichever Republican secures a spot in a runoff would have just over two months to make their case to a statewide audience.
“Whoever emerges between Collins and Loeffler will then pivot the next day to a general election message and they’ll be talking about different topics,” Robinson said. "They won’t necessarily step back from the rhetoric that they’ve had in this phase of the campaign, but they’ll be talking about different issues.”