In one of the strangest political ads of 2020, a helmeted, grubby-faced Atilla the Hun sits astride a throne in his yurt, grunting orders at an underling with a quill. “Fight China!” he commands. “Attack big government!” “Eliminate the liberal scribes!”
This agenda is apparently too timid for Kelly Loeffler, Georgia’s Republican junior senator, who ran the ad earlier this year to shore herself up against a hardline rival from her own party – and who is now pulling hard to the right as she fights a final round against a Democrat in a state Donald Trump lost.
Ms Loeffler entered the final round campaign already somewhat battered. On 3 November, she managed to place some six points ahead of Republican congressman Doug Collins, but not before he had spent months accusing her of being “bought and paid for by China” and slating her for allegedly owning a $56,000 Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong.
Most damaging of all is a scandal that hits the senator on her most distinguishing quality: her vast personal wealth.
With a net worth in the high hundreds of millions, Ms Loeffler is very much at the top end of the US Senate’s wealth ranking. While Mr Trump’s affluence has apparently done nothing to hurt his standing among right-wing voters, Ms Loeffler has none of the populist verve the president uses to turn his riches into a political asset.
But more concerningly, she was investigated this year for apparently shedding stocks in companies vulnerable to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic – this after receiving a confidential Senate briefing on the virus before it began tearing across the US.
As Mr Collins put it in the first round campaign, Ms Loeffler stood accused of “pandemic profiteering”, offloading millions of dollars invested in companies whose share prices later plunged. She stated that the sales were made independently by third party advisers who did not inform her of their decisions until after the fact.
Ms Loeffler was not the only senator investigated for such transactions, and she and her husband announced after the trades came to light that they would liquidate their individual stock shares. Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, a Fortune 500 company.
But while she has not been formally sanctioned for any wrongdoing, Ms Loeffler, part owner of the Atlanta Dream basketball team, has all year been at risk of coming off as an unprincipled out-of-touch oligarch who feels entitled to their seat – exactly what Mr Collins accused her of being. (An ad in which she said she knows how it feels to be “waiting on that paycheck” came off as desperately tone-deaf.)
And so, to craft a different identity for herself, she has yanked her campaign surprisingly far to the right.
The 5 January run-off elections will see both of Georgia’s Republican senators try to hold on to their seats, with control of the upper chamber – and Joe Biden’s chances of getting his agenda through the Senate – at stake.
Ms Loeffler faces Rev Raphael Warnock while David Perdue goes head to head with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. The Democrats need to win both Georgia seats to gain control of the Senate: if they do, both parties would have 50 seats but because Kamala Harris will become president of the upper chamber on 20 January in her role as vice-president, she would have the casting vote. If the GOP hold on to at least one, the Senate will remain in their hands.
The “Atilla the Hun” ad was the spearhead of a central argument for Ms Loeffler’s candidacy: that even by the standards of the Trump-era Republican party, she is an unflinching conservative who will not let anyone tell her where to stop.
While her voting record in the Senate is indeed at the conservative end, the culture of party line voting means she is not an outlier. (She and Mr Perdue have voted together 98 per cent of the time.) Nonetheless, she has campaigned alongside a genuinely extreme figure by GOP standards: Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was elected to the House in Georgia’s 14th congressional district.
Great to be in Ringgold today with @mtgreenee and a fired up crowd of Patriotic Georgians!
Now more than ever, we need outsiders and businesspeople in Washington who will FIGHT to protect the #2A, defend innocent life, and advance our conservative values! #gasen #gapol pic.twitter.com/Z3j0n4zbyW
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) September 19, 2020
Ms Greene is notorious for her adherence to QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory movement based on the notion that Mr Trump is secretly doing battle against a “deep state” cabal of satanic brain-hormone-drinking paedophiles.
Ms Loeffler has not only accepted Ms Greene’s endorsement, but has appeared with her at campaign events – including one attended by a right-wing militia group armed with assault weapons. The senator also recently posed for a photo with a former Ku Klux Klan leader who now runs a white supremacist hate group; her campaign claimed she had no idea who he was.
And beyond that, her ads targeting her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock, have been criticised for indulging familiar racist tropes from campaigns past, superimposing the Black candidate’s face on footage of riots and looting and warning the viewer that the campaign is about “defending America from that”.
Her swingeing attacks on him have drawn fire from many quarters, including the Christian community, with some 100 religious leaders from across Georgia joining in an open letter condemning her tactics: “We see your attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand,” they wrote.
“We call on you to cease and desist your false characterisations of Reverend Warnock as ‘radical’ or ‘socialist’, when there is nothing in his background, writings or sermons that suggests those characterisations to be true, especially when taken in full context.”
Having been appointed to her seat less than a year ago, Ms Loeffler is an inexperienced retail politician, and it sometimes shows. She is far from the most inept person to tread the boards of American politics in recent years, but can come off as reserved and flat at public rallies – especially when performing alongside Mr Trump or the slicker, more confident Marco Rubio, who did a turn on the stage for her and Mr Perdue in November.
Perhaps her lowest public moment so far was her performance at her one debate with Mr Warnock, which won her far more ridicule than respect. Striking an eerily robotic tone throughout the encounter, she repeated the same attack line, “radical liberal Raphael Warnock”, no fewer than 14 times, and was mocked for it even by Fox News.
She also repeatedly refused to concede that Mr Biden had won the presidential election – a signal again that for the GOP, the arithmetic of the twin run-offs begins with keeping the base fired up to vote no matter what they believe about the events of 3 November 2020.
This will not be easy. Many Republican voters are still convinced Donald Trump only lost Georgia thanks to a vast electoral fraud conspiracy (of which there is no evidence whatsoever), and the worry on the right is that many are now so cynical about the state’s electoral security that they won’t show up on 5 January.
This problem can be chalked up in part to Mr Trump himself, and to some of the more outré figures who have joined Mr Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in his favour. Conservative Georgia attorney Lin Wood, who has sued the state over the election to no avail, told a crowd at a rally in early December that asking Trump supporters to vote in the run-off was an insult.
“They have not earned your vote,” he shouted to cheers. “Don’t you give it to them. Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election, for God’s sake! Fix it! You gotta fix it!”