Kelly Loeffler uses battle with the WNBA as springboard into Georgia Senate runoff

It was widely-known that Donald Trump’s status as the de facto face of the Republican Party had a tremendous impact on most of 2020s down-ballot elections. That impact took a bizarre turn in the summer of 2020 when Kelly Loeffler, an incumbent Republican candidate in one of Georgia’s two senatorial races, took political aim at the professional sports league in which she has co-owned a franchise since 2011. In June, with Loeffler running in a unique special election that featured opponents on her left and right flanks, she publicized a letter she wrote to Cathy Englebert, commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association. In that letter, published amid the civil unrest wrought by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Loeffler argued that the league should distance itself from the Black Lives Matter movement. Given the history of the WNBA, and the context of the senatorial race, Loeffler’s maneuver was a politically motivated attempt to demonstrate her allegiance to a Republican Party that had aligned itself with Donald Trump.

At the time Loeffler published her letter, the WNBA was preparing for the start of its season, delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the league and its players were not reticent about demonstrating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. This support should not have surprised anyone familiar with the WNBA; over the last decade, the league has been more proactive in its political progressivism than any other professional sports organization in the U.S.. Political activism is integral to its brand. Those who enter WNBA fandom therefore go into it knowing that does not hesitate to voice its support for disregarded communities.

Before being appointed by Georgia’s GOP governor to fill the state’s suddenly-vacated seat in the Senate in early 2020, Loeffler was a fast-riser at International Exchange, a Fortune 500 financial service provider. She had a history as an investor in her own right (a history that came under intense scrutiny for alleged insider trading not long after she took office) and built up enough assets to purchase a 49 percent stake in a professional sports franchise, the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. In other words, Loeffler possessed at least a modicum of business acumen. To think that Loeffler might have been surprised or even offended by the political actions taken by the WNBA would be therefore naïve at best. In fact, as political scientist Audrey Haynes told Sports Illustrated, the WNBA’s brand “was part of [Loeffler’s] brand, too. And suddenly it isn’t.” Why did Loeffler, a noted women’s basketball fan, turn on her own league? The context of her senate race – and of Trump’s standing within the Republican Party – offers answers.

As a result of the senate vacancy left by Johnny Isakson at the very end of 2019, the Georgia state constitution allowed the state’s governor to appoint a temporary replacement until a special election could be held the following fall. That special election, which did not allow for a primary election to decide who would represent the major political parties, was a 21-candidate free-for-all that is now headed to a two-candidate runoff. Loeffler therefore found herself not only fending off Democrats like Matt Lieberman and Rev. Raphael Warnock but also fellow Republicans such as Doug Collins, who was initially passed over as Isakson’s replacement. Collins, a staunch supporter of President Trump, worked to cast Loeffler as not conservative enough. Others, like the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization, initially disapproved of Loeffler’s appointment (before endorsing her for reelection). Suffice it to say, Loeffler had plenty incentive to prove herself a worthy member of a political party that has become more divisive in its tone since nominating Trump for president in 2016.

To wit, when members of the Atlanta Dream pushed back against Loeffler by demonstrating their support for Warnock, Loeffler declared that it was a symbol of “cancel culture,” a tactic often employed by the Republican Party to delegitimize criticisms lobbed against the right and to create a boogeyman in the left. In addition, amid a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, Loeffler co-sponsored legislation that would have made it illegal for transgender girls to play girls’ sports. The bill, which would have needed to be approved by the Democratic-led House, had little chance to become law. Like her efforts to root Black Lives Matter out of the WNBA, however, co-sponsoring the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act was an act of political grandstanding that served no other purpose than to prove to the Georgia electorate that, like Collins, Loeffler was willing to align herself with Trumpism.

Finishing second only to Warnock in the special election, Loeffler appears to have successfully proved her bona fides among conservative Georgian voters. If she loses the runoff to Warnock, that same battle with the WNBA that might have vaulted her into the runoff might also cost her a seat in the Senate.