Sen. Kelly Loeffler was far from the only conservative to lean on the anger of White voters during the 2020 election, but for a moment, she was among the loudest.
Her recent loss in Georgia’s Senate runoffs is disappointing for Republicans on many levels, the most obvious being that her defeat, along with fellow Sen. David Perdue’s, cost their party control of the Senate. But unlike Perdue, Loeffler’s ascent to power was, in and of itself, a gamble. The rationale of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for tapping Loeffler, a political novice with a Wall Street background, to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson in late 2019 was aimed at keeping educated, suburban White women — believed to be turned off by Trump’s rhetoric — from jumping ship.
Despite her outsider status, both as a politician and as a Georgian, Loeffler ran a tight race in both the general election and the subsequent Georgia runoff, but it wasn’t by presenting a softer, more palatable image of conservatism. Instead, Loeffler leaned hard into Trumpism: She cast the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and destructive, reframed criticism as attempts to “cancel” her, and ran a campaign full of thinly veiled — and at times explicit — racist messaging.
She ultimately came up short against her opponent in the runoff, Raphael Warnock, whose victory will make him the first Black senator to serve Georgia. But as the Capitol insurrection makes clear, the brand of Trumpism that Loeffler swore by during her campaign isn’t going anywhere. And while White men dominated the mob that stormed the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, White women have long played a role in ginning up White grievance. Political experts suspect White women like her will play an increasingly crucial role in determining the direction of the Republican Party in Georgia and beyond.
There’s evidence of this in Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), who in the 2018 midterms made a lynching “joke” in her campaign against Democratic challenger Mike Espy, an African American man. In the House, freshman Reps. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) have fanned the same flames of grievance that Loeffler did during her campaign: Hours before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Miller riled up the crowd, saying “Adolf Hitler was right” about the importance of securing young party members. (She later apologized.) During the riots, Boebert tweeted about the location of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and compared the deadly siege to “1776,” the year the United States declared its independence from Britain.
Although Loeffler may have run the more high-profile race, the candidate who most successfully embodied the campaign she was trying to run was another Georgia woman: newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene is, on paper, the kind of woman Loeffler was supposed to appeal to: a conservative owner of a CrossFit gym and a construction company. She is also an unapologetic believer in QAnon, a widely debunked conspiracy theory.
In one of the more stunning images from Wednesday’s impeachment vote, Greene wore a “censorship” mask as she gave a nationally televised speech on the House floor. It was a performance of unearned grievance, only a week removed from an insurrection spurred by similarly unfounded fears.
Loeffler had never run in — let alone won — an election before her Senate appointment. But she wasn’t exactly a political outsider. A transplant from the Midwest, the Wall Street investor comfortably settled among the ranks of Atlanta’s elite: Alongside philanthropist Mary Rockett Brock, Loeffler purchased a stake in the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream in 2011, citing her lifelong love of basketball. She lives in the Buckhead neighborhood, alongside the city’s most powerful and wealthy, hosting fundraisers and donating to Republican candidates.
But despite her impressive fundraising network, she didn’t have the connection to the state that her predecessor, former senator Johnny Isakson, did, said Robin Morris, an associate professor of history at Agnes Scott College. Morris is working on a forthcoming book, “Goldwater Girls to Reagan Women,” which is about the work of women building the Republican Party in Georgia.
The Republican senator — who had to step down in December 2019 because of health reasons — “really knew Georgia, and really knew Georgians” in a way Loeffler did not, Morris said. “He had done a lot of community work. He had worked his way up through this state legislature, so he had built these relationships and people respected him.”
Loeffler didn’t have those close relationships, especially to communities and organizations outside Atlanta, which are crucial to Republican candidates, Morris pointed out, adding that much of this conservative political apparatus is held up by women.
On the campaign trail, Loeffler tried to strike a “down home” vibe with voters, often wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and a University of Georgia ball cap over her signature long, blonde hair. She would talk about growing up on a farm and the chores she needed to do, but for the most part, she didn’t talk intimately about her family — a departure for any Georgia politician, Morris noted.
Especially in Georgia, “you need someone who, when they eat a barbecue sandwich, they get a little sauce on their face,” Morris said. “It never felt like she was really connecting.”
Early on, she was challenged by Douglas A. Collins, a former Republican congressman whose staunch support of Trump won him favor with the president. Though she had funded moderate Republicans in the past — and her strongest connection to Georgia was through her ownership of a progressive organization led by Black and queer women — Loeffler opted to run to the right of Collins.
“She knew that if she had any chance of winning, she had to get Donald Trump’s voters out to vote,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.
“She wanted to appeal to their anger because that’s been effective in getting the Trump base out to vote,” Gillespie said. And a big part of that was tapping into the resentment of Trump’s mostly White base.
The clear turning point of Loeffler’s campaign was her open letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, in which she criticized the league’s Black Lives Matter messaging, which had been driven by the players themselves in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In doing so, Loeffler played into a specific kind of grievance politics, Gillespie said: white fragility. After the backlash to her public letter, Loeffler immediately accused players of censoring her — an accusation she would repeat frequently on her social media accounts and on conservative programs. As racial justice protests gripped the country last summer, including in Atlanta, Loeffler leaned into the rhetoric of a culture war.
“We cannot allow mob rule,” Loeffler told Fox News in late June.
“In the case of the Black Lives Matter letter, she tried to play the martyr right after that — so, clear evidence of white fragility,” Gillespie said.
She did it at a cost. The Dream was her strongest connection to the state of Georgia, Morris pointed out. Waging a war against a league mainly made up of Black women sent a clear message about the kind of voter Loeffler was willing to court and the kind of rage she was comfortable fanning. The team also successfully amplified the Warnock campaign in response to her attacks. Even after defeating Collins, Loeffler only amplified these attacks in the runoff election. Warnock was launching a historic campaign — Georgians had never elected a Black person to the Senate — but he didn’t make race the focus in his appeals to voters. Loeffler, on the other hand, did.
“Her campaign was nasty, and I think her campaign was racist,” Gillespie said.
Loeffler launched a relentless series of attack ads against Warnock, a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She attempted to portray him as menacing and sinister, calling him a “radical socialist” and, toward the end of the campaign, hinting at widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theories by baselessly accusing him of child abuse. Gillespie was especially struck by another example of weaponized fragility: accusing Warnock of being racist against White people for saying, in 2016, that Americans needed to “stop worshiping at the altar of Whiteness.”
The sermon was actually a repudiation of racism and bigotry.
Many White Georgians found Loeffler’s attacks compelling. At the very least, they were not dissuaded by them. This is not altogether surprising given the role white supremacists have played in Georgia politics for much of the state’s history. Morris pointed to Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the Senate in 1922. Felton’s represention of Georgia was brief and symbolic (it lasted for only a day), but it was testament to the significant role she played as a political organizer in the state. A suffragist, Felton was also an unabashed racist who advocated “lynch[ing] a thousand” Black men a week if it meant protecting white women.
Organizers and analysts are quick to note that if voter turnout had looked in 2020 the way it had in recent elections, Loeffler would have won. But the GOP was thwarted by a historic voter turnout campaign, spearheaded by Black organizers, many of them women. They include Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has made voting rights her signature issue, as well as Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of a Black-led political action committee, BlackPAC.
Shropshire’s team, alongside grass-roots organizations, worked to expand the Democratic electorate by focusing on infrequent and inactive voters, particularly in Black communities outside of Atlanta. This includes the state’s ‘Black belt’: rural counties like Randolph, Jefferson and Clay where a majority of the population is African American. Weeks before the general election, BlackPAC recognized that the fight for Loeffler’s seat would probably result in a runoff and began expanding its infrastructure. By the time the runoff began, it had added 31 locations statewide. She estimates that the effort was the biggest campaign the organization had ever run, despite a pandemic. Organizers and volunteers knocked on 6 million doors for BlackPAC alone.
The fact that the GOP was so aligned with Trump was a great motivating factor for Democrats, Shropshire said.
“The top motivator for people’s participation in the election was far and away removing Trump from office,” she said. “Black people have been very clear since 2016 — in fact, before then — that Trump is not just a threat to our democracy, but a threat to Black communities specifically.”
Loeffler made a crucial misstep, Gillespie said, by not reintroducing herself to voters once the runoff race began. A typical campaign cycle will begin this way, she said, with attack ads against opponents coming later. Closer to the actual election, candidates will normally shift their tone back to a more positive one, focusing on themselves and making the case for their agenda.
Loeffler didn’t do this. Instead, she launched attack ads against Warnock at the onset of the runoff, a move his campaign anticipated. When she stripped his sermons of context and attempted to weaponize them, she was seen by Black voters as attacking the Black church itself.
“You could tell that she was probably going down, frankly, because of the ways in which she started to flail. In the ways in which her attacks became increasingly unhinged,” Shropshire said. The disrespect she showed Black voters and the church was significant, she said. “It was important for us to say, this is not something that we’re going to tolerate.”
Loeffler was ultimately rejected by Georgia voters, and recent analysis found that her close association with Trump probably cost her. And while both she and Perdue won a majority of White female voters, network exit polls showed them earning the exact same percentages: 59 percent of White women with a college degree and 74 percent of White women without one, suggesting their female voters voted strictly along party lines. (Among White men, Loeffler did slightly worse than Perdue among those with a college degree, and slightly better with men who didn’t have one.) If Loeffler was supposed to make the GOP more palatable for suburban White women, it is unclear she made any difference at all.
Still, the brand of politics Loeffler championed cannot be dismissed. While Georgia’s GOP could certainly do some soul-searching about how to expand its electorate for the midterm elections, Shropshire and other Black organizers said they are preparing for the Republican Party to make voting more difficult for young voters and voters of color.
“We will, without a doubt, see a wave of new voter suppression laws,” said Shropshire, pointing to persistent but unfounded claims of voter fraud among the Republican base.
Shropshire said she expects to see Georgia conservatives try to strike down mail-in voting and double down on voter ID laws. Like other strategists, she is anxious about what new district maps could look like in the wake of the recent census. Experts agree that future Georgia elections will be close — a reflection of the state’s changing demographics — and without robust protections like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, restrictions on who can cast a ballot and how could very well decide pivotal races. Loeffler lost in 2021; that doesn’t mean she — or someone like her — will lose the next time around.
“We’re back here in 18 months,” Shropshire said, referencing the 2022 midterms, when Warnock will defend his seat alongside a possible gubernatorial campaign from Abrams.
“I know they will continue to try to vilify him,” she continued. “They will continue to try to lean into the racism and white supremacist elements of their base to fire people up.
“That is what they have decided is their winning strategy. And so I don’t think that will go away.”