No doubt this was done in earnest by the team, as a show of genuine opposition to her. But a little part of me wants to believe it’s actually eight-dimensional chess on Loeffler’s part.
I’m imagining her calling a huddle in the locker room before the game, like, “Listen, would y’all mind terribly wearing some ‘Vote Warnock’ shirts for me tonight? As a favor. I have my reasons.”
I thought she was a dead duck in the special election for the Senate seat she now occupies after the DOJ briefly investigated her for possible COVID-related insider trading this past spring. But she was cleared, and she’s been more competitive in the race than one might expect. Between her vast fortune, the support of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and the perception that she’s more moderate than populist challenger Doug Collins, Loeffler should do fine with right-leaning swing voters like suburbanites. Her problem is that Collins could beat her anyway by consolidating the righty populist vote. So Loeffler’s been at pains to make inroads with that group, sticking close to Trump and grasping for ways to show voters that she’s a populist at heart too, as far-fetched as that may seem.
Maybe she’s found a way. A month ago, as minority owner of the Atlanta Dream, she wrote to the commissioner of the WNBA to complain about the league’s plan to promote Black Lives Matter this season. “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country,” said Loeffler at the time. “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.” Her suggestion: Why not put the American flag on players’ uniforms instead?
That would have been an unsubtle pander even for Trump but she doesn’t have a ton of time before Election Day to convince Collins’s voters that she’s One Of Us. Fortunately for her, players on the Dream and across the league were outraged by her request. “I can’t believe I ever stepped foot in Kelly’s house and shared a meal with her. It’s actually really hurtful to see her true colors,” said one former Dream player. The team’s current players pushed back on her as well:
We said what we said. #SayHerName pic.twitter.com/xpuFiLmO9r
— Monique Billings (@moniquebillings) July 10, 2020
The WNBA players’ union went so far as to suggest that she should be forced to sell her interest in the team:
— WNBPA (@TheWNBPA) July 7, 2020
We’re not going to force her to sell, the commissioner said, but the players’ instinct to purge her from the league handed Loeffler a new gift-wrapped talking point about being threatened by “cancel culture.” Some of the players themselves were shrewd enough to realize that her anti-BLM crusade was an election ploy, nothing more. (Would she have complained publicly in a letter to the commissioner if she weren’t running for a Senate seat?) “[V]ery quickly we started to realize that this was only happening for her political gain. This was something that she wanted. And the more noise we made, whether it was a tweet saying to get her out, that was just playing into her hands,” said Seattle player Sue Bird. Elizabeth Williams of the Dream echoed that point: “When we realized what our owner was doing and how she was kind of using us and the Black Lives Matter movement for her political gain, we felt like we didn’t want to feel kind of lost as the pawns in this.”
So … here they were last night, playing into her hands further by escalating the feud in a highly visible way:
Players on the Chicago Sky, Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream sported "Vote Warnock" shirts yesterday in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is one of the candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler #Vote2020 #thegist pic.twitter.com/FgESuTKNtv
— The GIST USA (@thegistusa) August 5, 2020
We are @wnba players, but like the late, great John Lewis said, we are also ordinary people with extraordinary vision. @ReverendWarnock has spent his life fighting for the people and we need him in Washington. Join the movement for a better Georgia at https://t.co/hC8iF9urak pic.twitter.com/mvN5e9m4oO
— Elizabeth Williams (@E_Williams_1) August 4, 2020
Dream and Mercury players are wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts to their game today.
Raphael Warnock is running against Kelly Loeffler for Senate. Loeffler is a co-owner of the Dream and said she opposes the Black Lives Matter movement.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 4, 2020
Loeffler’s campaign must have been ecstatic. Becoming the scourge of BLM sympathizers is exactly the sort of thing she’s looking for to elbow Collins aside among Georgia righties. Her campaign naturally highlighted the “Vote Warnock” t-shirts on Twitter:
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.
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) August 5, 2020
It’s sad to see that there’s more interest in tearing our country apart than in solutions that bring us together. I’ll continue to defend American values and our flag, because this is not a game – it’s the future of our country
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) August 5, 2020
Collins was left grumbling to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wondering why Loeffler didn’t speak out a few years ago when the WNBA allowed fans to donate a portion of ticket sales to Planned Parenthood. “She just has no moorings,” he complained. “It’s what happens when you have never had to take a stand on anything – a history where she doesn’t comport to what she wants to run for now.”
It’s awfully cynical. But is it working? From the end of June through most of July, Loeffler trailed Collins in every poll of Georgia’s “jungle primary.” (There are no party primaries there. Candidates from both parties compete in a single election and the top two finishers head to a runoff, assuming no one gets 50 percent.) Sometimes she trailed by just a few points, but in at least one survey from mid-July tracked by FiveThirtyEight she trailed by 10. Then, a few days ago, Monmouth dropped its latest poll of the state. Lo and behold:
Look who leads among Republicans and conservatives. How much of that is attributable to Loeffler’s calculated fracas with the WNBA over Black Lives Matter and how much is attributable to her bottomless war chest is anyone’s guess. But the BLM controversy surely isn’t hurting her. Maybe it will later if she ends up in a runoff with a Democrat, but at the moment she seems poised to overcome her primary obstacle, fellow Republican Collins.
Note, by the way, that Raphael Warnock, the subject of the players’ t-shirt endorsement, isn’t even the top polling Democrat in the race. He’s fourth in single digits despite being the party’s preferred candidate this year. That’s no fluke, either. Other polls show Warnock struggling to gain traction and routinely trailing fellow Dem Matt Lieberman by a few points. State and national party leaders think he has the most upside in the field, as he could conceivably rebuild the black and progressive coalition that nearly made Stacey Abrams governor in 2018. (Abrams has endorsed Warnock, as have a slew of Democratic senators.) But he’s not catching on so far. Maybe once Abrams and the other famous names who’ve backed him hit the trail for him, it’ll turn around. But right now there’s at least some chance that he, Lieberman, and less popular Dem candidates will split the lefty vote and propel Loeffler and Collins to an all-Republican runoff later this year. Hoo boy.