Kelly Loeffler, a Wall Street Senator With a Hardscrabble Pitch

The hard right turn of Ms. Loeffler, one of two Republican candidates in Georgia’s pivotal Senate runoff elections, reflects the ideological gymnastics embraced by her party in the Trump era.

In the year since Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the Senate, the largely unknown financial executive has crafted a narrative of her life and built a campaign around it.

It goes like this:

She is a humble farm girl who lived “paycheck to paycheck” as she worked her way through college.

She is a staunch opponent of abortion, evidenced by a raft of legislation she has introduced in Washington.

She is appalled by the “radical views from the pulpit” espoused by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, her Democratic opponent in one of two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate.

And, above all, she is a fervent supporter and rubber stamp for President Trump, a message she has repeated across Georgia, from the campaign trail (“I’m the only U.S. senator that has voted 100 percent with President Trump”) to the debate stage (“I am proud to be the only U.S. senator with a 100 percent voting record with President Trump”) to her campaign ads (“Kelly Loeffler: 100 percent Trump voting record.”)

Her life, though, has been rather more nuanced than her life story.

In many ways, Ms. Loeffler appears to be a traditional business-oriented Republican whose hard right turn is a stark reflection of the ideological gymnastics many politicians in her party have performed in the populist, culture-warring Trump era.

While she is described by friends and foes alike as deeply driven, there is little evidence of a hardscrabble upbringing. She came from a prosperous farming family in central Illinois, and in her early 20s was given large tracts of some of the richest agricultural land in America. By 24, she had bought herself a duplex condo on Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Even as she casts herself as an advocate for “hard-working Georgians,” her political roots run to Wall Street, where her husband and chief financial backer, Jeffrey Sprecher, is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and her second-largest donor, Kenneth Griffin, is a hedge fund titan. (Businesses led by the two men have donated more than $27 million to an affiliated PAC.) Ms. Loeffler herself worked for years as a top executive at the stock exchange’s parent company, Intercontinental Exchange, and now sits on the Senate committee that oversees its main regulator.

Kelly Loeffler, a Wall Street Senator With a Hardscrabble Pitch

Ms. Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, center, the chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange, at the New York Stock Exchange in 2013.Credit…Richard Drew/Associated Press

Her support for the president, and for Trumpism, is relatively recent. She did not contribute to his 2016 campaign, and in the years before her appointment to the Senate, she was known as a reliable Republican donor, gravitating to more centrist figures like the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney. One associate said that, for a time, Ms. Loeffler’s cellphone had a photograph with Mr. Romney as its background. (Her campaign would concede only that it had a Romney-Paul Ryan case.)

“She worked the phones, she put together events at her home, she did everything,” said Sue Everhart, the former state party chairwoman in Georgia. “There was not any talk of her running for anything, just the work.”

Until 2017, Ms. Loeffler was the chairwoman of a corporate foundation that matched small donations that her company’s employees made to many groups, including those that support abortion rights, among them Planned Parenthood. The W.N.B.A. team she co-owns, the Atlanta Dream, has also worked with Planned Parenthood.

And in January, she shared the pulpit with her future opponent, Mr. Warnock, at Ebenezer Baptist Church — evvel presided over by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and called it “a sacred place.”

Against that history, Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for Ms. Loeffler has been lukewarm. When Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, was picking a replacement for the retiring Senator Johnny Isakson in 2019, the president pressed for his stalwart impeachment defender, Representative Doug Collins.

Yet facing a runoff that may well turn on the party’s ability to energize its base, she is all in for Mr. Trump. She has fully embraced his desperate and baseless attempts to subvert the election, endorsing a failed Texas lawsuit to disenfranchise voters in four battleground states that backed the president-elect, Joseph R. Biden Jr. And she has yet to acknowledge that Mr. Biden won, even though the Electoral College has cast its votes.

“As this process plays out to ensure a free and fair election both Nov. 3 and Jan. 5, my focus is on serving the people of Georgia,” Ms. Loeffler said in a statement. “The future of the country is on the ballot.”

Farm girl

Mr. Kemp announced his choice of Ms. Loeffler at a news conference on Dec. 4 of last year. She was not exactly a familiar face to Georgia voters.

“Please allow me to introduce myself: My name is Kelly Loeffler,” she said in her opening remarks. “I have lived the American dream, and I am blessed to stand here today, but it is a long way from where I came from.”

“I grew up on a family farm,” she went on. “We lived simply. Life revolved around farming, church, school and 4H. There was a rhythm to our lives. We planted in the springs, I showed cattle at the county fairs in the summers and in the fall we harvested. Sundays were for church and family.”

Since then, that back story has become a cornerstone of her political persona. During a recent debate, she said she “grew up working in the field” and “waitressed my way through high school and college.” She has spoken of counting tips at the family dinner table and having to mortgage family farmland to put herself through graduate school. A recent campaign isim calls her a woman who understands what “it feels like waiting on that paycheck.”

In her statement to The New York Times, she explained that she had worked part-time and summers to “help cover my tuition and board,” though she declined to say how much her parents contributed or if she had taken out student loans.

But her narrative leaves much unsaid.

The Loefflers’ corn and soybean farm was “one of the larger farms from the ’80s to today” in McLean County, Ill., according to Ed Jodlowski, a classmate at the local high school who is now the school’s principal.

McLean may have been one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions, but it wasn’t the kind of place where people flaunted their success, and the Loefflers didn’t either. Ms. Loeffler’s childhood home is a modest but pretty brick ranch, with a creek running behind it. Mr. Jodlowski, whose son now works for the Loefflers, said that back then he knew the family “lived comfortably,” but that students at Olympia High didn’t talk about money much, so “I didn’t think of her like, ‘Oh, she’s from this rich farming family.’”

She was tall and had to wear leg braces for a time, played basketball, ran cross-country and track, played in the marching band, and was a member of the math and science club. The local paper, The Bloomington Pantagraph, reported on her sewing and yeast-making prowess at county fairs.

Supporters of Ms. Loeffler gathered at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Atlanta on Election Day to await Georgia’s results. She and the Rev. Raphael Warnock would advance to the Jan. 5 runoff.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Her best friend from childhood, Shelley Marquis, said that, like many local children, she and Ms. Loeffler “walked beans” in the Loeffler fields, pulling out weeds with a hoe for extra money. And Ms. Loeffler worked as a weekend waitress, she said, “not because she had to, but because she’s motivated and driven.” For her Olympia High senior year “prophecy,” the future senator wrote: “Be on ‘L.A. Law’ or a partner in a financial firm.”

The next year, The Chicago Tribune interviewed her father, Don, who described himself as a “simple farmer” — albeit one, the newspaper noted, who owned 1,800 acres, ran a 10-truck, 15-employee transport business and served on a local bank board. The article, about a bumper crop that had farmers literally breaking into song, was headlined “Gold in the Fields.”

“This is reaping the fruits of our labors,” Don Loeffler told The Tribune. “And it doesn’t get much better than this.”

There was also help from American taxpayers. Since 1995, members of the family, including Ms. Loeffler’s father, who is now retired, and her brother Brian, who last year was named the county’s farmer of the year, have received $3.2 million in federal farm subsidies, according to veri from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit. (Nearly a quarter of that came from money Mr. Trump used to compensate farmers for his trade war with China.)

Of course, that makes the Loefflers no different from many other farmers. But it is noteworthy because the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that backed Ms. Loeffler, ran an isim campaign criticizing her primary opponent, Mr. Collins, for supporting the farm bailout program. And Ms. Loeffler, as a senator, also opposed continuing the extra $600 unemployment payment given this year to workers who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, saying people needed to “get back to work and limit government dependency.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1992, Ms. Loeffler took a job as a district account manager at Toyota in Los Angeles. Her starting salary was $28,500, she evvel told an interviewer, and she shared an apartment with roommates. It was at this point, she told The Times, that she was “living paycheck to paycheck to hisse rent and utilities, car payments, insurance and living expenses.”

But after the death of her grandparents in 1994, county land records show, she and her brother inherited close to 50 acres of prime family farmland. (Today, McLean farmland goes for upward of $10,000 per acre, according to the Illinois Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.)

Over the next few years, she and her brother were added to the deeds for, or given, additional tracts of land by their parents. By 1995, Ms. Loeffler had moved into the Chicago duplex condo, which she bought for $72,500. And in 1997, when she entered the M.B.A. program at DePaul University, she borrowed against one of the land parcels given to her, obtaining $60,000 and a $500,000 line of credit, records show.

“That’s part of the farm culture,” said Howard Heatherwick, a longtime family friend. “If your kids can own a piece of land, that’s a large part of assuring their well-being for years to come.”

By 1999, business degree in hand, Ms. Loeffler was ready to begin her career in finance.

Taking over Wall Street

She arrived at Intercontinental Exchange in 2002, after bouncing between three firms in three years. The company was still a start-up, and while she officially led investor relations, she was really a “utility infielder,” according to Richard V. Spencer, who recruited Ms. Loeffler after working with her at a previous company.

“I’d hire her again in a heartbeat,” Mr. Spencer, who recently served as Mr. Trump’s Navy secretary, said in an interview. “Amazing work ethic.”

The company, known as I.C.E., had begun as an energy-trading exchange but led a broader shift toward electronic trading. Mr. Sprecher was adept at exploiting the soft spots in regulation. Early on, for example, he seized on the “Enron loophole,” which had been advocated by the infamous energy trading company and exempted certain futures contracts from regulation.

I.C.E.’s aggressive culture showed. The company played a central role in the 2006 collapse of a hedge fund, Amaranth, leading a critical Senate report to call for more oversight.

“Regulators have been in a game of whack-a-mole with the derivatives industry for years,” said Joseph Cisewski, a former regulator and special counsel at Better Markets, a Wall Street watchdog. “I.C.E. has been adept at staying one step ahead of the whack.”

Traders watching an interview with Ms. Loeffler as they worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in March.Credit…Lucas Jackson/Reuters

For many years, Ms. Loeffler was the only female senior executive.

“It was a really driven culture,” said Thomas Farley, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange. “Good teams fight. It started at the top. Kelly and I fought multiple times, Jeff and I fought. The culture was, we’re going to work really hard to build the business, and at the end of the day we’ll be a cohesive team.”

Not long after she arrived, Ms. Loeffler began a relationship with Mr. Sprecher, and they married in 2004. To deal with potential nepotism issues, Ms. Loeffler reported to Mr. Spencer and then to his successors, though they ultimately reported to Mr. Sprecher.

People interviewed for this article almost unanimously described the couple, who do not have children, as unreconstructed workaholics. One former executive called Ms. Loeffler “definitely one of the smartest people who I’ve ever worked with, but she’s very demanding and controlling, so I wouldn’t say people who worked for her loved her.”

She was not a natural public communicator, and for years was most visible reading pro forma statements during earnings calls. (On the campaign trail, she is often criticized as overly scripted.) But she was an able executive, taking on jobs that larger companies generally gave to three people — head of marketing, head of investor relations and head of communications.

During the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Sprecher negotiated with the Federal Reserve to create a clearinghouse for credit-default swaps, the financial assets at the heart of the meltdown, mitigating some of their dangers while also reaping profits. The clearinghouse was set up through a holding company in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven; the company said there had been “no avoidance of U.S. taxation whatsoever” by the clearinghouse.

I.C.E. vacuumed up its more traditional rivals, culminating in 2013 with the New York Stock Exchange, emerging as a wide-ranging securities marketplace. Ms. Loeffler helped woo technology companies like Alibaba, the Chinese internet colossus, away from the rival Nasdaq.

She was also becoming increasingly involved in Republican politics. She served as a 2012 convention delegate for Mr. Romney and held a fund-raiser for him at her $10.5 million Buckhead estate, which has nine antique fireplaces, parquet from Versailles and fossilized dinosaur footprints in the kitchen floor.

She joined boards of local institutions like Grady Memorial Hospital. In 2013 she flirted with running for the Senate but held off, citing the recent stock exchange acquisition. And she became a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream in 2011.

While Ms. Loeffler calls herself “a lifelong pro-life champion,”the Dream allowed Planned Parenthood to set up a table and distribute literature at a 2018 game. (Ms. Loeffler’s campaign said she had not been aware of that.) And she also served as chairwoman of the I.C.E. N.Y.S.E. Foundation, which during her tenure matched small employee donations to Planned Parenthood and Partners in Health, an international group that sees abortion access as a human right, records show.

She and her husband contributed more than $3 million to candidates and political committees in the years before her Senate appointment, mostly to Republicans but with exceptions like Mr. Sprecher’s $2,000 donation to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign.

Ms. Loeffler was not a staunch ally of Mr. Kemp. In the thick of Georgia’s bruising 2018 governor’s race, during an event to honor female leaders, she appeared at a Dream game alongside his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams.

Only a year and change later, though, Mr. Kemp would usher in Ms. Loeffler’s own political moment.

The pick

In July 2019, Georgia’s senior senator, Mr. Isakson, was hospitalized after falling in his Washington apartment and breaking four ribs. Burdened by Parkinson’s disease, he announced his retirement the next month.

Ms. Loeffler had not donated to Mr. Kemp in 2018, but in the weeks between Mr. Isakson’s hospitalization and retirement announcement, records show, she contributed more than $18,000 to the governor’s 2022 campaign, the maximum allowable. (Ms. Loeffler said the contribution came after a fund-raiser for the governor.)

Replacing Mr. Isakson, of course, fell to Mr. Kemp, and while Mr. Trump lobbied for Representative Collins, the governor wanted his own pick. Having prevailed over Ms. Abrams, a formidable Black activist whom many Democrats view as a governor in waiting, Mr. Kemp was intrigued by the idea of a political counterweight. He considered a number of Black candidates, most notably the State Supreme Court’s chief justice, Harold Melton, who ultimately decided to remain on the bench.

Mr. Kemp also recognized that Ms. Loeffler was the sort of candidate who might help the party hold a crucial constituency — suburban voters, and especially suburban women.

President Trump with Representatives Doug Collins, right, and Rick Allen of Georgia after flying into Atlanta in July. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“I think No. 1, she’s female, and that had a lot to do with the pick and what we’re doing as Republicans,” said John Padgett, a former Georgia Republican chairman. “She’s also been a really good businesswoman, and she has her own money. And that’s always helpful.”

Her money was especially helpful with the seat at play in a special election less than a year later. And for Mr. Kemp, Ms. Loeffler and her husband represented a pool of untapped resources. Georgia United Victory, a political action committee funded by Mr. Sprecher and his allies to bolster Ms. Loeffler’s bid, was quickly populated by former Kemp aides, and its acronym — GUV PAC — raises questions of whom it will support next.

“Certainly we are all supporters of Governor Kemp and have been senior staff folks for him,” said Martha Zoller, a former Kemp aide and now the group’s chairwoman. “Our big goal is getting out the vote for Kelly Loeffler.”

Asked if the group would pivot next to Mr. Kemp, she said, “We’ll just have to see about that going forward.”

By the time she was picked, Ms. Loeffler had taken on a new job at I.C.E., as chief executive of Bakkt, the company’s fledgling exchange for digital currencies like Bitcoin. Ahead of Bakkt’s official debut, she spent much of 2019 negotiating directly with senior officials at I.C.E.’s most important regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

A few months later, she was sitting on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, which oversees the C.F.T.C. (I.C.E. is also the largest financial backer of the incoming Democratic chairman of the House agriculture committee, Representative David Scott of Georgia.)

“The conflict of interest is just so completely glaring,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director of Americans for Financial Islahat, a nonpartisan Wall Street watchdog. “Almost all of I.C.E.’s important activities are regulated in very fine detail by the C.F.T.C.”

The Senate’s newest and wealthiest member also quickly found her personal finances under scrutiny — first her $9 million I.C.E. parting package and then a series of stock trades that began the day in January that she attended a Senate coronavirus briefing, giving her early knowledge of the market-moving calamity.

The Justice Department ultimately dropped insider trading investigations of Ms. Loeffler and several other senators, including David Perdue, the Republican candidate in the second Georgia runoff. . But amid calls for stricter Senate ethics rules, she and her husband announced that they would divest their individual holdings, and in May, she stepped down from a subcommittee that directly monitors the C.F.T.C, though she remains on the Agriculture Committee.

“I’ll recuse myself if and when any potential conflicts arise,” she said, though she declined to say if there had been any instances where she had done so.

Birth of a Trump warrior

The senator didn’t get much of a political honeymoon either.

Mr. Collins had vowed to run against her in the special-election primary if she was chosen, thus beginning a running duel to showcase their fire-breathing credentials. Attila the Hun even appeared in one of Ms. Loeffler’s ads.

She began backing legislation that had little chance of passing but spoke to the Republican base, including bills like the “No Catch-and-Release for Rioters Act,” the “Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act” and a measure to bar abortion providers from receiving loans for coronavirus relief.

She has repeatedly excoriated sermons delivered by her Democratic opponent, Mr. Warnock, branding him a “militant Marxist radical” — a strained broadside that riled fellow Black pastors — and falsely claiming that his sermons had incorporated the controversial “God damn America” remark from a speech by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Even so, while her campaign says Mr. Warnock has been spreading abhorrent views “for decades,” she was willing to appear with him in January at his church, Ebenezer Baptist, during the traditional political pilgrimage for Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

Loyalty to the president has been paramount.

She has claimed ignorance of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Mr. Trump boasted of groping women. She held a joint event with Georgia’s most outlandish politician, Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, who during her primary campaign professed support for QAnon conspiracy theories, which claim that Mr. Trump is locked in battle with a clandestine cabal of pedophile Democrats. And Ms. Loeffler has called for the resignation of a fellow Republican, Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia, who rebuffed pressure from the president to disenfranchise enough voters to reverse his narrow defeat there.

In a sign of the perils of Trumpist politics, Ms. Loeffler found herself the target of Democratic attacks after a photo appeared of her smiling alongside a former Ku Klux Klan leader at a recent campaign event. The longtime white supremacist, Chester Doles, had posted the photo on a Russian social networking site, and it quickly ended up on Twitter. Ms. Loeffler disavowed Mr. Doles and said she hadn’t known whom he was; no evidence has emerged to suggest that she did.

Asked about the senator’s politics, her longtime friend Ms. Marquis said the first she learned of Ms. Loeffler’s anti-abortion position was during her campaign. Ms. Marquis, whose daughter was born with Down syndrome, said she recently wrote her friend to thank her for her stance. In an interview, she indicated that Ms. Loeffler’s politics were center-right, but called back to clarify: “I think she’s more right than center, especially when it comes to right-to-life and the Second Amendment.”

Ms. Loeffler leaving the Senate floor after a vote last month. As an owner of the W.N.B.A.’s Atlanta Dream, she has clashed with its players.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Ms. Loeffler’s transformation has upended her relationship with the W.N.B.A. Many had seen her as a model owner: providing financial support, knowledgeable about the game and a sounding board.

“Kelly really took deva of everybody in a first-class manner,” Marynell Meadors, a former Dream coach, said in an interview. “We never talked politics. It was always about becoming a better professional basketball team.”

The team’s politics mirrored the league’s more than Ms. Loeffler’s, and the predominantly African-American players, many of whom are involved in social justice campaigns, rarely heard a protest from the Republican owner.

But facing a primary in a tumultuous year of racial justice protests, Ms. Loeffler went to war with the team. She assailed Black Lives Matter for what she called its “Marxist roots, Marxist foundations” and denounced her team’s players for leaving the court during the national anthem.

They fired back, wearing shirts that read “Vote Warnock.” One of her former players, Layshia Clarendon, called it the league’s “Donald Sterling moment,” referring to the former N.B.A. owner forced out after his racist comments came to light. And Sue Bird, one of the league’s leading players, tweeted last month that “Sen. @KLoeffler only looks out for herself.”

Elizabeth Williams, who plays for the Dream, said in an interview that the team’s players took pains not to call out Ms. Loeffler personally in their political activism. “It was never all about her,” she said, citing the players’ work with social-justice and voting- rights groups.

If Ms. Loeffler’s Trumpist turn has been surprising, her allies say it has also been effective.

“I can tell you firsthand, she has emerged as one of the most courageous conservative voices on Capitol Hill,” Vice President Mike Pence said during a rally in Georgia last week. “We need Senator Kelly Loeffler back in the United States Senate.”

Her old business mentor, Mr. Spencer, who clashed with Mr. Trump before departing as Navy secretary, supports Ms. Loeffler’s candidacy, but paused when asked about her political evolution.

“Politics are too incendiary a thing nowadays,” he said. “This is her position. It is what it is.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Source: The New York Times

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