Loeffler’s Campaign Hoped For Reset. But Senator’s Stocks Came Under New Scrutiny

May 18, 2020by Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) waves toward supporters following a news conference in the governor's office at the Georgia State Capitol Building on December 4, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign was seeking a reset after a rocky first few months in the Republican’s tenure as a Georgia senator. Instead, an FBI investigation of a fellow senator suddenly placed Loeffler’s own stock sales front and center again.

Even before that development, several high-placed Republicans had told McClatchy that they were concerned that Loeffler’s stock sales had become too much of a distraction and she should consider dropping out of the special election for the Senate seat she currently holds.

Former Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican who represented the Columbus area until 2017, said Republican Party officials should consider having a “kitchen table” discussion with Loeffler about her candidacy.

“Her getting out of the race is something that I think that some people just need to sit down and talk about,” he said in a phone interview.

That sentiment among those Republicans grew stronger after federal authorities executed a search warrant and seized a phone of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr in an investigation about stocks the Republican sold following a January coronavirus briefing that Loeffler also attended. The law enforcement action put new pressure on Loeffler to address her own stock sales and assess her volatile political situation.

The special election she is competing in will take place in November when fellow Sen. David Perdue, a slate of Republican representatives, and President Donald Trump will be on the ballot. Westmoreland said he was concerned that Loeffler would be a drag on the rest of the GOP ticket in Georgia.

“This doesn’t need to spread like something in poison ivy and start getting on other people,” Westmoreland said in a recent interview. “Is this going to interfere with our congressional races, where we’re trying to win a couple of seats back, or is this going to interfere with the presidential election of President Trump? Is it going to interfere with Sen. David Perdue’s election?”

Loeffler has said her stock sales after a briefing for senators on the novel coronavirus—which netted as much $3 million— were made by a third-party financial adviser without her knowledge.

Her office said in a statement on Thursday that the senator had provided documents to the Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission and Senate Ethics Committee “establishing that she and her husband acted entirely appropriately and observed both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

The senator’s top opponent in the special election, Republican Rep. Doug Collins, has sought to link Loeffler to Burr, and his spokesman told reporters that “continuing her campaign while under investigation is selfish and pointless.”

Loeffler was not served with any search warrants, her campaign told McClatchy, rejecting comparisons of her situation with Burr’s and rebuffing suggestions from Collins’ campaign and others that she should withdraw from the Senate race.

“Doug Collins peddling more lies about Kelly is shameful but not surprising. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a career politician who has a record of raising taxes, cutting jail time for violent criminals, and funding sanctuary cities, Common Core and Planned Parenthood,” Stephen Lawson, campaign communications director for Loeffler, said in a statement to McClatchy.

Collins and Loeffler will compete in the November election against each other and Democrats at the same time in what is known as a jungle primary.

Loeffler’s campaign began this month with a $4 million investment in television advertisements to combat allegations that the lawmaker, who took office in January, made inappropriate financial transactions.

A survey conducted by Loeffler allies that was released this week placed her in a statistical tie with Collins and Democratic businessman Matt Lieberman, both of whom are running against her, boosted confidence.

Loeffler’s inner circle took that as a sign that the senator’s message was breaking through to voters. The new momentum was short-lived.

A person close to Trump who had previously expressed anxiety about Loeffler “endangering our Senate majority,” told McClatchy on Thursday that the new attention to her stock sales were even more worrisome.

A Georgia Republican strategist familiar with the race told McClatchy that down-ballot candidates in the state are “nervous as hell” that Loeffler’s stock sales will be an election issue that will spill over into their races.

One of Loeffler’s new ads includes a picture of her standing alongside the president, but Trump has not endorsed either Republican candidate. He was supportive of Collins early on, encouraging Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to give Collins the seat, but since Loeffler’s appointment, he has been publicly neutral in the race.

The president is said to have vented privately about the stock sales, however he declined to weigh in on the issue at a news briefing in April when a reporter asked him about allegations that Loeffler may have engaged in “insider trading.” The White House has repeatedly declined to comment.

Loeffler announced in April that she would divest from all individual stocks.

Democrats are pledging to make stock sales a major election issue. National groups are already running ads linking Loeffler to Georgia’s other Republican senator, Perdue, who will also face the voters this fall in the unique election in which both of the state’s Senate seats are on the ballot.

Perdue, a former businessman, acknowledges that a financial adviser sold stock for him earlier this year. But he did not attend the Jan. 24 briefing on the coronavirus for senators, a spokeswoman for Perdue’s office in Washington told McClatchy. He has since divested much of his stocks.

The spokeswoman said repeatedly this week that the senator had at no point been contacted by the FBI.

Even so, Democrats are attempting to portray Burr, Loeffler and Perdue as three peas in a pod.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss said the warrant for Burr’s communications “draws more attention to the fact that both Senator Loeffler and Senator Perdue have unethical stock trading scandals of their own and are under growing scrutiny for enriching themselves while downplaying the public health threat coronavirus posed to their constituents.”

Loeffler continues to have the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “NRSC stands with Senator Loeffler because she continues to deliver for the men and women of the Peach State,” spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement this week.

The stock sales have made the special election that Loeffler must win more competitive than initially expected. The coronavirus pandemic further limited the Republican’s ability to introduce herself to her new constituents and future voters in public gatherings, leaving her campaign with limited options.

It released three new advertisements in early May, one of which depicts Loeffler rescuing stranded Georgians in her private jet.

The ad includes images of the plane and references to Loeffler’s wealth and asserts that she’s being “unfairly targeted, all because she’s a strong conservative woman.” Another says she’s facing attacks just like Trump. A third spot plays up a million-dollar donation to a hospital and encourages viewers not to believe “liberal lies.”

Loeffler has spent nearly $10 million of her own money campaigning so far and has plans to double that amount by the election.

Her campaign indicated to McClatchy that future ads would get increasingly aggressive, attacking her opponents by name, as the trailing senator tries to make up ground.

“Kelly is in a statistical tie for first with significant advantages in resources, message, and campaign infrastructure,” Lawson told McClatchy on Wednesday.

The Republican rivalry in the race has become extremely bitter. Loeffler’s next phase of ads will likely include pointed attacks on Collins, her campaign said, landing in the coming weeks and months in mailers, on digital platforms and in television advertisements.

The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s impeachment trial, Collins has earned national recognition as a conservative flamethrower and a staunch ally of his party’s most influential leader.

Loeffler had never held office before her appointment to former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat. A former businesswoman and a current co-owner of the Georgia-based WNBA team, Atlanta Dream, she and her husband Jeffrey Sprecher have an estimated net worth of $500 million, making her the wealthiest member of Congress.

Collins’ campaign brushed the cash advantage off.

“Her and her allies have spent $11 million already on ads to Doug’s zero, and we’re beating her by 44 points, so we’re not particularly worried about it,” Collins’ campaign spokesman Dan McLagan told McClatchy, referring to Collins’ lead in a recent poll among Republicans.

The poll that was commissioned for the Georgia House GOP Caucus, and conducted by an ally of Collins, had the congressman beating Loeffler in late April by 18 points when the entire field was included and attracting 62% of Republican voters.

But another survey released earlier this week showed Loeffler closing the gap. In the Public Opinion Strategies survey of Georgians, Loeffler was only a point behind Collins. The Republican congressman had 19% of the vote, Loeffler had 18% and Lieberman was close behind at 17%.

DSCC-backed pick Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, garnered 9% of the vote in the survey that was conducted by the Republican governor’s pollster and had a margin of error of roughly four percentage points.

All of the candidates are competing for the seat vacated by Isakson when he retired in December before his term expired. To win the election to fill the remainder of his term, a candidate must achieve a simple majority in the November election, otherwise the top two vote-getters will compete against one another in a January runoff.

Republicans who are backing Loeffler remain confident that she will prevail.

“Sen. Loeffler will need to keep doing what she’s been doing,” one Senate Republican strategist said about her response on the stock sales. “Being up front about this issue and staying ahead of it while simultaneously keeping her shoulder to the wheel for Georgia in the Senate.”

However, Westmoreland, the former Georgia representative, said “bragging” about her private jet in any circumstance plays into a criticism of Republicans that “they are all rich,” and it is especially problematic because Loeffler was chosen to appeal to soccer moms.

Trey Hood, a pollster and professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said the stock sales have defined Loeffler in a way that will be hard for her to shake off.

“Most normal people are not selling millions of dollars in stock,” he said, “or know what a blind trust is. People are connecting some dots here, and they’re not really good dots.”

———

©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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