Loeffler’s five months as a senator have not been easy. She’s facing attacks from the left and right for selling millions of dollars in stocks after receiving a private briefing on the coronavirus pandemic. What’s more, she’s fighting off a serious challenge from Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) — a strong ally of President Donald Trump — who is ahead in most recent public polling.
Since news of her stock trades broke, Loeffler has tried to erase the cloud hanging over her. She insists her financial transactions were done through a third-party adviser, vowed to divest from her individual stocks and recused herself from a Senate agriculture subcommittee. She’s also donated $1 million to provide food for hungry Georgians during the economic crisis.
But Loeffler’s portfolio threatens to overshadow everything else. And Collins knows it.
“Instead of working for the people of Georgia for the past five months in D.C., she seems to have been working for herself,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Because all she’s been able to do is have to explain her stock scandal and left her doing nothing else more than that.”
Just last week, Loeffler revealed that she handed over documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee, one day after the FBI seized the phone of another senator facing his own stock trades problem, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
In the interview, Loeffler declined to answer whether the FBI has contacted her or whether she’s requested an Ethics Committee investigation into her own finances, as Burr did. The Georgia Republican pointed to her previous statements saying she turned over documents and would “absolutely” cooperate with the SEC or Ethics Committee.
“This is the liberal media attacking someone who supports free enterprise,” she said. “I’m not going to be deterred by it.”
Collins, who has done work as a defense attorney, isn’t buying it: “When somebody won’t say they’re under investigation, the probable answer is they’re under investigation.”
And Loeffler’s colleagues acknowledge the issue isn’t going away.
“She’s going to have to answer it,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) “And I mean she’s been trying to. It’s an issue, there’s no question.”
The intraparty warfare over the seat could cede ground to Democrats in Georgia, with both Loeffler and her colleague, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), up in November and the Senate majority up for grabs. Perdue declined to comment on the status of the Loeffler-Collins race and didn’t indicate whether he’d campaign with Loeffler, citing a campaigning hiatus because of coronavirus.
“I’m not commenting on that race,” said Perdue, adding that the Republican candidates were better than the Democrats in the race.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat in December to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who retired for health reasons. The state’s November special election is a nonpartisan contest with close to two dozen Republican and Democratic candidates. If no candidate receives a majority, it will go to a January 2021 runoff.
Loeffler has indicated she’s ready to go on the offensive, describing Collins in the interview as a “do-nothing, career politician who has tax and spend as a strategy.” Collins retorted: “It’s amazing she can read a cue card from her consultants.”
Loeffler entered the Senate in the run-up to Trump’s impeachment trial, providing an unprecedented challenge for a junior senator trying to establish herself. She moves through the Capitol quietly and calmly, generally refusing to engage with reporters. In the interview, she was disciplined and talked herself up as a political outsider just like Trump.
Though Collins can boast that he was a prominent opponent of Trump’s impeachment in the House, Loeffler can say she voted to acquit the president. In the interview, she also touted securing coronavirus relief for Georgians through the CARES Act and introducing proposals to help the economy recover amid the pandemic. She said her tenure in Washington has been about what she expected. Except for one thing.
“I knew I’d be attacked for my success, and I knew it would come from the left,” she said. “What’s been surprising is it’s come from the right, as well. And I think that’s shameful.”
Despite her struggles in the polls, Loeffler has the backing of many of her Senate GOP colleagues as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The campaign committee has attacked Collins for being selfish and putting Perdue’s seat at risk by running — even dubbing him a “convenient conservative.” But Loeffler, a former chief executive of a financial services company, is a wealthy self-funder, so it’s unclear what level of financial commitment the GOP will make for her.
“We think she’s a very strong candidate,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of GOP leadership who is up for reelection, has spoken personally with Loeffler about her stock trades and said her defense was compelling. She said Loeffler was a strong conservative woman.
Still, some members of the caucus are not picking sides. Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who served with Collins in the House, said he disagrees with the NRSC’s aggressive attacks on his former colleague.
“He has every right to do it, and he’s not just a gadfly, obviously, he’s a serious member of Congress,” Cramer said.
And Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said Loeffler is a “great candidate” but he will let her battle with Collins play out rather than making any endorsements: “I’m one that loves transparency and competition.”
Privately, some Republican senators and aides have more dour assessments. They understand the NRSC needs to back incumbents to guard against primary challenges, which have dogged Republicans in the past, but several said she’s in a dangerous situation and might need to drop out of the race. No sitting GOP senator has publicly said, however, that she should quit.
Some recently appointed senators have gone poorly for each party. In Alabama, then-Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) blew his primary after the GOP spent millions propping him up and Democrats captured the seat in 2017. And Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) dropped out of his campaign amid allegations of plagiarism in 2014, ultimately resulting in a GOP pick-up.
In interviews, GOP senators spoke highly of Loeffler. But some members acknowledge that the stock issue could be a problem for the party.
“The polling is not great,” said one GOP senator.
A recent poll conducted for the GOP firm Cygnal on behalf of state House Republicans and Speaker David Ralston has Collins leading the race at 29 percent, with Loeffler well behind at 11 percent. Ralston is a close ally of Collins. Another poll conducted by the Democratic pollster Civiqs for the liberal website Daily Kos had Collins leading the pack at 34 percent and Loeffler polling at 12 percent.
But one poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and commissioned by a group that supports Kemp depicted a much closer race, with 19 percent of voters backing Collins and 18 percent backing Loeffler. Collins said that poll used “nonexistent” information and was not transparent, but Loeffler is leaning strongly on it.
“I’m in a statistical tie for first, but that is going to be decided in November by the people of Georgia,” she said. “And if we believed polls, then Hillary Clinton would be president and Stacey Abrams would be the governor of Georgia.”
One thing that could upend the race: a Trump endorsement.
Both Collins and Loeffler have embraced the president. And Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, donated $1 million to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action in April. Loeffler has also voted with Trump 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, and has offered nothing but praise for the president.
“I was inspired by President Trump as someone in the private sector,” she said. “That gave me the confidence to put my hand up and say I want to serve in office, because I believe I can make a difference.”
But Collins won high marks on the right during the House impeachment proceedings as a fierce defender the president, and Trump pushed Kemp to choose Collins for the slot. Collins said Trump’s reluctance to back Loeffler “says a great deal about my relationship with the president.”