When Georgia business executive Kelly Loeffler was appointed to replace the ailing Sen. Johnny Isakson in December, it was clear that her ownership of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream could become an issue during the 2020 special election to fill out the term.
The league, which is 83 percent women of color, is known for its frosty relationship with President Donald Trump, a politician who dominates the political landscape with culturally inflammatory and racist rhetoric. Some right-wing activists were angry at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for not picking Rep. Doug Collins, a staunch Trump ally who became known for defending the president from his perch as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“The WNBA has been an outspoken supporter of Planned Parenthood, even partnering with the pro-abortion organization in opposing President Trump’s pro-life policies,” the Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative evangelical group, said in a statement at the time.
But Republicans in Georgia are betting the state is still red enough that they can win by fully embracing the president. The strategy may have been obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy for Loeffler to pull off. It has been a rough crash course for the political neophyte. She was sworn in at the onset of Trump’s heated impeachment trial. Then the Department of Justice investigated whether she engaged in insider trading after she sold $1 million in stock following a February coronavirus briefing. (DOJ closed its investigation in May.) Several polls that month showed her tied with Collins, who is her most formidable GOP opponent in the crowded race.
But in the wake of the investigation and nationwide social justice protests against racism and police violence, Loeffler seems to have found her voice.
And it sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump’s.
When the WNBA announced that it would allow its players to wear warmup jerseys with phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” Loeffler responded by sending a letter to Commissioner Cathy Engelbert urging the league to instead put an American flag on all uniforms and apparel. Loeffler said the Black Lives Matter movement is a “radical Marxist group that actively promotes violence and destruction across the country.” (One of the group’s founders once described herself as a trained Marxist, but Black Lives Matter is a decentralized movement and many groups claim to fall under its umbrella.)
The players were not pleased. Some wanted the league to force Loeffler, who is not involved in day-to-day operations, to sell the team. Engelbert told CNN while they would not be forcing a sale, “we are aware there are interested parties who want to purchase the team.”
In order to defend the opening left by her association with the WNBA, it was perhaps inevitable that Loeffler would pick a fight with her own league.
Indeed, Collins is attacking her over a game in which the Dream allowed fans to donate a portion of ticket sales to Planned Parenthood, a favorite target of the right because it provides abortion services.
Loeffler has repeatedly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and decried what she calls the politicization of sports, so much so that several WNBA players recently wore T-shirts asking voters to support one of her opponents, Democrat Raphael Warnock.
Loeffler accused the women of participating in “cancel culture” for expressing their political preferences.
“We come together around sports, but promoting a political agenda divides us rather than unites us,” Kelly said in a statement responding to the players. “The lives of every African American matter, and there’s no place for racism in our country. But I oppose the BLM political organization due to its radical ideas and Marxist foundations, which include defunding the police and eroding the nuclear family.”
Loeffler recently sat down to talk about the WNBA protests with Jack Posobiec of One America News Network. As Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have pointed out, Posobiec was a noted “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist. For the uninitiated, “Pizzagate” was a theory that Democratic Party operatives were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C. The conspiracy ended with a man driving up from Salisbury, North Carolina, with a .38‑caliber Colt revolver, an AR-15 rifle and a shotgun, and blasting the lock off a supply closet door at the restaurant where he believed kidnapped children were being kept.
From the interview and her previous statements, it’s clear Loeffler is attempting to walk a narrow tightrope. She has stated repeatedly that there is nothing controversial about the statement “Black lives matter,” and that of course, no one supports racism. Whether voters are picking up on that nuance, it’s hard to say. The Black Lives Matter movement enjoys wide popularity nationwide. But over the last week Loeffler’s campaign Twitter account has put out tweet after tweet railing against “cancel culture,” rioting in Portland, Oregon, and the Black Lives Matter movement. There is hardly a mention of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed 160,000 lives.
And there is evidence that it may be working. A recent Monmouth poll has her up in the special election by 6 percentage points over Collins. Among Trump supporters, 47 percent support Loeffler, while 40 percent back Collins.
This isn’t the first time racial politics and ownership of an Atlanta basketball franchise has become an issue during a statewide race in the Peach State.
The bitter 1970 Democratic primary for Georgia governor between Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Carl Sanders featured the Atlanta Hawks.
Carter aides were responsible for distributing flyers of Sanders, then a part-owner of the Hawks, that featured a photo of African American player Lou Hudson pouring champagne over Sanders’ head while celebrating a victory, according to Jon Ward’s book “Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party.”
Sanders carried to his grave a grudge against Carter, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2013 that the flyer’s message was, “Here’s Carl Sanders making love with the blacks.” Carter, who lost the 1966 governor’s race to segregationist Lester Maddox, denied any knowledge of the flyers.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, activists cheered its passage as the culmination of a long and bloody struggle in which churches were bombed, marchers were beaten, and leaders were gunned down, kidnapped and lynched.
In a photo of the bill signing ceremony, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be seen beaming over the shoulder of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
It was a sweet victory. But of course not everyone felt that way.
“This is a tragic day for America, when Negro agitators, spurred on by communist enticements to promote racial strife, can cause the United States Senate to be steamrolled into passing the worst, most unreasonable and unconstitutional legislation that has ever been considered by the Congress.”
That was Sen. Strom Thurmond, an ardent segregationist on his way to switching his allegiance to the Republican Party and serving another 38 years in the Senate.
And he wasn’t the only one. Mississippi’s James O. Eastland closed out his 1966 Senate reelection campaign with an ad conflating communists and “civil rights agitators” like King.
“These people are our enemies,” said Eastland as he stared into the camera, his wide-rimmed glasses sitting above his large jowls. “And I will continue to fight them in the United States Senate.” The ad closes with a voice imploring Mississippians to “remember, if you are not at the polls on Nov. 8, you know who will be.”
Throughout his short life King was forced to disavow Marxists and communists by southern segregationists looking to discredit the civil rights movement.
“Communism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible,” he wrote. King, a Christian minister, complained that with its “cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism, communism provides no place for God or Christ.”
King parted ways with members of his organization after President John F. Kennedy warned that he would no longer be able to support King if he was associated with Marxists and communists.
King protege and civil rights legend John Lewis once had his skull fractured during a march for voting rights. He was arrested multiple times for integrating buses during the legendary “freedom rides.” For his troubles he was called a communist by his opponents. Lewis, who served in Congress for 32 years before dying of cancer in July, recently became one of the few Americans given the honor of lying in state under the Capitol dome.
“As a leader in the civil rights movement, he always pushed America to live up to its promise of freedom and equality,” Loffler said after Lewis’ death. “Our nation is better because of his leadership and courage.”
Before his retirement last December, Loeffler’s predecessor Isakson gave a speech in which he praised Lewis for his kindness when Isakson arrived in the House in 1999.
Lewis returned the favor. “You, senator, led a team that could cross the aisle without compromising your values,” he said.
“I’ll come to you brother,” Lewis said when he finished. He walked over to Isakson, who’d been listening on the floor, and the two embraced.
It was a touching moment.
Correction, 1: 12 p.m. | This report corrects the spelling of Raphael Warnock’s first name.