The GOP’s Giant Kelly Loeffler Problem
In the days following the November 3rd election, Republicans and Democrats alike watched with bated breath as Atlanta’s counties tallied their votes. A question clung to their minds as tenaciously as beggar lice stuck on a spaniel during dove season. Did Republican senate candidates significantly outperform Donald Trump in Gwinnett County?
Spoiler alert, they didn’t. GOP candidates in the Senate Special received a combined 40.22% of the vote in Gwinnett County. They “outperformed” Trump by a pathetic 0.01%.
This question goes back to Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to appoint Kelly Loeffler, a Republican donor with zero political experience, over a politician with actual experience in winning elections. Officially, Georgia Republicans reasoned that a well-spoken and highly educated businesswoman would appeal to moderate suburban voters. In other words, they hoped Loeffler would staunch the bleeding in Atlanta’s suburbs, particularly Gwinnett and Cobb counties — both former Republican strongholds.
To the GOP, she undoubtedly looked good on paper. She was a wealthy conservative woman who was willing to use her wealth to support both her own campaign and the GOP in general. Indeed, in the months leading up to the general election, she and her husband Jeffrey Sprecher sunk $31 million into GOP races. $1 million went to America First Action, a pro-Trump PAC. The Republican National Committee received a combined $507,000 with a further $717,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This was in addition to the $100,000 she donated to the Republican National Committee on November 4, 2019, a scant two weeks before she applied for Georgia’s open senate seat.
Now, to quote my granny, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Let’s call that $100,000 what it appears to be — a down payment. Yes, it looks like the GOP sold one of Georgia’s US Senate seats to a rich donor.
Admittedly, Georgia’s 2020 senate races were a financial nightmare for both parties. We had two expensive senate races on the ballot. Having twenty candidates in the Senate Special race practically guaranteed a runoff. Imagine if the NCAA Division 1 National (Football) Championship went into two months of overtime, and then they played the entire championship game again. This is the political equivalent. Given this, selecting a candidate who could self-fund made financial sense for both parties.
In practical terms, Loeffler’s deep pockets let the GOP’s fundraising arm focus on other high-stakes senate races like Martha McSally’s in Arizona. Being female — and theoretically able to reconnect with suburban women because she’s female — was considered a bonus.
In the general election, she secured 25.91% of the vote, pulling ahead of Doug Collins and securing her place in the runoff.
Now, news outlets ranging from FiveThirtyEight — an ABC affiliate focusing on data analysis — to the New York Times have all published analyses of Georgia’s senate runoffs. (We now have two.) In general, they all tell the same story. In Georgia, Republicans have more regular voters than Democrats. Therefore, Republicans typically win Georgia runoffs. While they stop short of saying Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority is in the bag, they heavily imply it.
They are ignoring the elephants in the room.
Where Are Georgia’s Votes
When Georgia became the fourth state to ratify the Constitution on January 2, 1788, its borders stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Alabama and Mississippi were once part of Georgia.
Although we shrunk in 1798, we still retain some of that big state mentality. Nowadays, we rank 24th in terms of land area, but we have more counties than every other state except Texas — 159, to be exact. When you’re watching Georgia’s senate runoff votes roll in come January, please keep the following in mind.
Here in Georgia, we have cities, small towns, and the sticks. (Full disclosure, I’m originally from Macon County. That’s the sticks, not the city of Macon.) Taliaferro County — population 1,717 souls — will finish counting long before Fulton County — population 1,063,937. Even in this modern era of scanners and voting machines, the sticks always finish counting first.
Where the GOP’s Base Lives
The big green blob in the northern half of the state is the Atlanta metro area. That’s the following counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, De Kalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale. Together, these ten counties accounted for 45.48% of Georgia’s total vote. Republicans only carried two of them, winning 68.95% in Cherokee and 53.17% in Fayette.
Fulton County is Atlanta proper. The remaining counties are the Atlanta suburbs. The GOP’s mythical moderate white woman with a college degree who may vote for a white businesswoman who lives in Gwinnett County, probably Lawrenceville. Any inclination these mythical women had to vote for Loeffler likely died with Attila the Hun. (Click if you must, but be prepared for psychological scarring.)
Long story short, the Atlanta metro area went so heavily Democratic that it only accounted for 31.5% of the GOP’s total votes state-wide. In comparison, Atlanta voters cast 58.5% of the total Democratic vote here in Georgia.
Forget about the official reasons for selecting Loeffler for a minute and think about where the GOP’s Georgia base lives. They obviously do not live in Atlanta. So where are they?
They live in smaller cities, towns, and rural counties — places like Roberta, Coffee County, and Cordele. Indeed, 19.85% of votes for Republican candidates in the 2020 Senate Special came from counties that cast fewer than 15,000 votes total; counties that reported less than 5,000 votes accounted for 3.6%.
Based on the 2018 election cycle, including the runoff races, and Biden’s performance, we all expect Georgia’s senate runoffs will have tight margins. At which point, 1,381 votes in Echols County matter.
These small-town voters are Loeffler’s greatest vulnerability and the GOP’s biggest problem.
Because Kelly Loeffler is from Illinois.
Where’re Your People
In the rural south, the phrase “where’re your people” has multiple meanings. At church, it translates into “point me towards your momma because you should not be doing that.” When you meet someone new, this question means where are you from, where are your parents, grandparents, and so on down the line from. This question gets to the heart of white rural identity.
I was born in Houston County because they had the nearest hospital and raised in Macon County. I went to school in Peach County — again, closer to home — and moved to an unincorporated part of Houston County in time for high school. Save for four years living in Washington, DC, while working and attending graduate school, I have always lived in Georgia.
As we say out in the sticks, this ain’t Atlanta. Where I grew up, our neighbors readily pointed out that my momma was from Florida, but I was still a Georgian because I was born here. In their eyes, it helped that my daddy’s people were also Georgians for the last 150 years. When you heard someone mutter that “so-and-so needs to go back where he came from,” they meant New York or Chicago, not Mexico. They often followed this phrase with “damn yankee” and a hacking cough. (As a kid, hearing any phrase followed by a cough instantly signaled “do not repeat on pain of soap.”)
If you’re laughing about the yankee thing, please stop. My mema’s turning over in her grave because I just wrote a swear word. Twice, and it wasn’t damn. Substitute it for the word “traitor,” and you’ll just about have the proper meaning among rural white southerners.
1920s-style nativism is still very much a thing here. This is not the Progressive New South lauded by Atlanta Democrats. It’s the old.
When I first heard about Loeffler’s appointment, I admit that I wondered if Kemp likes his steak and gravy topped with magic mushrooms. She’s a great candidate for Atlanta. Correction, she was a great Atlanta candidate before she tried to out-conservative Doug Collins. But the GOP’s base isn’t in Atlanta. As a former secretary of state and the current governor, Kemp obviously knows where his voters live.
Perhaps, he doesn’t quite understand how some of them think. Kemp was born and raised in Athens, GA — home of my alma mater, the University of Georgia — which prides itself on its diversity and inclusiveness. Speaking from experience, talking like a country hick is far more of a liability in Athens than being from out-of-state. Maybe, he believed rural Georgia is more progressive than it is.
Alternatively, he slept through Georgia history.
A Brief History of Georgia’s Non-Native US Senators
In the US’s early years, Georgia changed US senators like my sister changes shoes. Take James Jackson. He resigned in 1795 after two years in office. Why? Because he wanted a seat in the Georgia legislature.
Pre-Civil War (1789–1861), you had a better chance of becoming Georgia’s US senator if you were born in Virginia. Nine of Georgia’s twenty-two senators were Virginians; only six were Georgians.
From February 4, 1861 through February 24, 1871, Georgia’s senate seats remained vacant.
Since then, Georgia has had twenty-five elected (and seated) senators. Fifteen of whom were elected by popular vote.
Only four senators elected by popular vote were not native Georgians: M. Hoke Smith (D), Mack Mattingly (D), Paul Coverdell (R), and Saxby Chambliss (R). Smith and Chambliss both moved to Georgia as children. I consider them adopted Georgians, but I’m liberal about such things.
Regardless, all four won Gwinnett County. Mattingly carried it at 68%, Coverdell at 64.5%, and Chambliss at 64%.
History teaches us that Loeffler needs voters with a more cosmopolitan world-view. She needs people who see her as someone who adopted Georgia as her home state, not an outsider looking to buy a senate seat.
She needed Gwinnett and Cobb counties. She knows she won’t carry either of them, so Loeffler did something that either makes her a political genius or insane. It depends on whether Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s joint campaign capitalizes on her audacity.
Loeffler Committed a Cardinal Sin
Loeffler understands that rural voters want someone like them. She’s taken great pains to portray herself as a highly successful farmgirl.
For months now, Loeffler has trawled small towns across Georgia for votes, speaking from the tailgate of pickup trucks and holding events at fairgrounds. Campaign rallies always begin with a line about raising a cow for 4H. In rural areas and small-towns, she shows up in jeans, a button-down shirt, boots, and a baseball cap — her official campaign uniform. Even though her jeans and boots lack wear marks, most of us will give her a pass. Down here, new jeans are church clothes.
She even created a campaign ad of herself “going hunting.” She picked the wrong hairstyle, belt, and pants for a hunting trip, but she tried. (Doug Collins rightly maligned her for going bird hunting without a bird dog.) She does everything in her power to look and act like one of us.
Speaking of looks, she needs to pull Perdue aside and explain that his jean jacket does not convey the message he thinks it does.
Loeffler knew that the pro-Georgian nativism prevalent in rural Georgia might scupper her dream, so she lied by omission.
Loeffler’s official senate about page talks about growing up on her family grain farm. It never mentions where. Unlike Perdue, Georgia’s other Republican senator, she was not born or raised. At all. She materialized fully grown on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says she moved to Georgia in 2002 but never mentions where she lived before that. Church membership, family status, all the essential information Georgians typically demand from their politicians is suspiciously absent. The same pattern repeats itself on her campaign’s Meet Kelly page and in her speeches. For example, she never says where she lived when she raised the cow.
A quick Google search reveals what she left out. Why is readily apparent.
1. She was born in Bloomington, Illinois — the same city where Abraham Lincoln gave his Lost Speech — and raised in Stanford, Illinois. Among rural white Georgians, this makes her a yankee. It also means she’s from the same state that sent Barack Obama to the US Senate.
2. Her husband Jeffrey Sprecher isn’t from Georgia either. He was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin.
On a personal level, the above three points do not make me more or less inclined to vote for or against Loeffler. That said, I’m a white millennial female with a master’s degree, hardly her target demographic. We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about my family, friends, and neighbors and the culture I was raised in.
Around here, a lie by omission is still a lie. Lying about where you came from and who your people are is a cardinal sin. It is disowning everything that makes you you. That she both lied about where she comes from and then tried to reinvent herself as a Georgia farm girl is the ultimate betrayal.
Even in places like Perry, which is slightly more accepting of outsiders than Marshallville, this is beyond bad.
The GOP’s Dilemma
In the November 3 jungle primary, Loeffler knocked off Doug Collins — a good ole’ boy if there ever was one. During this brutal primary, Loeffler and Collins cleaved North Georgia in two.
The heavily Collins area — the green dots — in the north-east corner of the state is the 9th district. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it leans R+31, making it one of the most heavily Republican congressional districts in the US. It’s also the most Republican district in the state of Georgia. In 2020, US House candidate Andrew Clyde (Republican) won 78.58% of the 372,547 votes cast.
To win in January, Loeffler must persuade Collins’ voters to turn out for her. This is likely why she’s hitched her wagon to Perdue. As demonstrated by the November 3rd election, Perdue has broader support among GOP voters than Loeffler.
However, Loeffler deceived Perdue’s rural white voters. She went against one of the most basic tenets of their culture — honesty about your roots. To make matters worse, she then decided to fake it until she made it. Pretending to be one of them was a mistake, especially when her illusion falls apart with only the barest scrutiny. By tying himself to Loeffler, Perdue just made her missteps his own.
There are two ways to win an election.
1. You turn out your voters.
2. You talk the other guy’s voters into staying home.
Every Sunday, Raphael Warnock stands behind the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church — one of the most influential Black churches in the country. Ebenezer Baptist Church is in Fulton County, or as we’d say here in Georgia, right next door to Gwinnett and Cobb. Between his sermons and the massive Atlanta-based Democratic voter turnout machine, Atlanta will likely show up for the runoff. Even without these factors, attacking Georgia’s vote count and arguing that certain ballots, i.e., absentee ballots cast by minority voters in the Atlanta metro area, should be thrown out may motivate Democratic voters. Against all my expectations to the contrary, it looks like Democrats have their voter turnout covered.
That leaves persuading Republican voters to stay home. (Admittedly, the GOP’s mini-civil war may accomplish this without any help from the Democrats.) The Democrat attack ads, talking points, and memes practically write themselves.
• The GOP sold one of Georgia’s US Senate seats to a rich woman from Illinois of all places.
• Loeffler lied to Georgians about who she is. To add insult to injury, she pretended to be one of us. Vote for a real Georgian.
• Perdue thinks it’s okay for the national GOP to sell one of Georgia’s US Senate seats. He doesn’t care where she came from or that she lied. He’s a sellout, not a real Georgian.
• Mitch McConnell and the GOP sold your senate seat to Kelly Loeffler, a rich woman from Illinois, because a Georgian wasn’t good enough for Georgia.
You get the point.
Whether the now combined Osoff-Warnock campaign will take advantage of this colossal problem remains to be seen. Perhaps, they’ll take the high road and focus on their base while ignoring the inherent conflicts between Kelly Loeffler’s senate candidacy and rural white southern identity politics. After all, rural white southerners are not their base.
Time will tell.
- Georgia’s Official Election Results as Certified by the Secretary of State
- List of US Georgia Senators
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
I used r markdown for all data analysis and the maps. Here’s the data along with its r markdown and the generated output.