GOP’s Loeffler Takes Hard-Right Turn, Polarizing Race in Georgia

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Senator Kelly Loeffler’s campaign was designed to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to voters in Georgia’s increasingly Democratic suburbs -- instead the race has turned into a contest in which each side is hardening its core supporters and few undecideds remain.

One of the main reasons Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tapped Loeffler to fill Senator Johnny Isakson’s seat last year was that she might appeal to White suburban women who have been pivotal in recent elections and have been trending toward Democrats.

From the start, Loeffler described herself as a “lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.”

And ever since, amid President Donald Trump’s baseless insistence that he lost Georgia to President-elect Joe Biden only because of widespread election fraud -- charges that have divided the state GOP -- Loeffler has only hardened her positions to ensure that loyal Republicans show up for a January runoff.

Trump already held one rally in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence is expected to make an appearance Thursday on behalf of Loeffler and another Republican incumbent, Senator David Perdue, who faces a Jan. 5 runoff election against Jon Ossoff. Biden campaigned for the Democrats on Tuesday.

Some strategists have said Loeffler’s tactics could alienate the moderate and suburban voters she needs to win. And the stakes are high: The two runoffs will decide control of the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January. Democrats need to win both to gain control of the chamber. A victory by either Loeffler or Perdue would leave Republicans in charge and able to hobble Biden’s agenda.

Loeffler has attacked Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor who leads the church once headed by Martin Luther King Jr., as a socialist and Marxist, and accused him of defending the “hatred” of controversial African American pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Loeffler’s campaign declined to comment.

On Wednesday, Loeffler’s campaign issued a lengthy statement on what it called Warnock’s “refusal to answer basic questions,” and chided the media for not asking them, a tactic straight out of Trump’s playbook.

GOP’s Loeffler Takes Hard-Right Turn, Polarizing Race in Georgia

The statement hews to the campaign’s theme that Warnock won’t “renounce” Marxism. It suggested he was anti-Semitic by citing some criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and because he once praised Wright, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and similar figures.

The statement links to material that doesn’t quite track with the claims. Regarding Wright, it links to a speech Warnock gave at Yale Divinity School last month in which he encouraged people to view Wright’s entire sermon on race in America, not just the fiery clip that went viral in 2008 in which Wright says, “God damn America.” And another links to a Fox News report citing a comment Warnock made in 2013 in which he acknowledges a need for the Nation of Islam’s perspective but doesn’t mention Farrakhan.

“There isn’t much room for persuasion in this contest,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “But if there are certain things that may turn off some small segment of voters -- then that can be decisive.”

Although runoffs in Georgia historically favor Republicans, the small number of independent opinion polls so far have Loeffler running behind Warnock, according to polling aggregator fivethirtyeight.com.

“I assume the calculus is based on who is going to vote in a runoff -- a smaller universe dominated by base party turnout -- and believing that your average middle-of-the road voter is not going to turn out on January 5 -- so she has to give Trump voters a reason to come back,” says Dan McLagan, who worked for rival primary candidate Representative Doug Collins.

“I think she lost the suburban mom a long time ago -- they probably turned out and voted against Trump, anyhow, that’s part of their calculus,” McLagan said.

Veteran political consultant Rick Dent said any hope of capturing White suburban women “went out the door” as soon as Loeffler was challenged by Collins, a conservative Republican, “and she turned hard right to win.”

She has not returned to the middle, he says, because “the middle simply has no place in this election” owing to the quick turnaround time from Nov. 3 to Jan. 5.

“Therefore, moving from the hard right to the middle in just a few short weeks in this runoff was not only impossible but may have exposed her as a total fraud had she even tried,” said Dent.

Loeffler and Perdue are worried about incurring Trump’s wrath and have supported his attacks on Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The state officials defended the election process in Georgia, which voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in 28 years.

The upshot is that it’s probably Warnock “who’d be the one in the best position to appeal to a middle,” Bullock said.

Democrats are focusing their attacks on Loeffler’s and Perdue’s stock trades, a tactic that might appeal more to moderate and suburban voters. Loeffler has been criticized about her sales and purchases of stocks following government briefings to Congress on the virus. Those drive home that “these people are far wealthier than you are, if you’ve been laid off or had your hours cut because of Covid,” Bullock said.

Warnock has countered her accusations that he is a radical extremist by saying in a debate that he believed in the “free enterprise system” and he notes that his father was a small business owner, answers that would appeal to moderates.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, says Loeffler is using a “type of racially charged” language, and that her attacks on Warnock will inspire White Southern evangelical Christians who turned out to vote for Trump to turn out again.

“We’ve seen both Democrats and Republicans nationally, and even in this state, recognize the middle is vanishing. And so when Loeffler ran to the right she wasn’t just running to the right to beat Doug Collins, she stayed to the right because she needed Donald’s Trump’s base to turn out the vote,” Gillespie said.

“Even with the shrinking middle, there’s somebody who is the middle voter.” The question is, “which of the two candidates is likely to appeal to them?” she added. “If she’s miscalculated, and that median voter actually could be more Democratic leaning in the state, then Raphael Warnock wins.”

Warnock and Ossoff both need to win on Jan. 5 for Democrats to have a tie with Republicans in the U.S. Senate that could be broken in a party-line vote by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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