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DALTON, Ga. -- Kelly Loeffler is not just a U.S. senator and a successful businesswoman. She is also one of the social doyennes of Buckhead, the Atlanta neighborhood of the wealthy and aspiring rich, where she has often thrown open the gates of her $10.5 million European-style manse, known as Descante, for charity fundraisers.

The role requires maintaining a certain unruffled poise. So it was impossible to know what Loeffler was thinking as she rolled up to a brewpub in Dalton, Georgia, in late August for a campaign event and was greeted by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fellow Republican who had just won a House primary after promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory and making offensive remarks about Black people, Jews and Muslims.

Loeffler and Greene exchanged pleasant chitchat near the front door. Later, Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat last year and must win an upcoming special election to keep it, grabbed a microphone and talked about finishing the wall on the Mexican border, the "fake news" that would never intimidate her and the "dangerous Marxist movement called the Black Lives Matter political organization."

A reporter asked Loeffler whether she supported Greene, and whether she denounced QAnon.

"Marjorie is fighting to defeat socialism; that's what I'm focused on," Loeffler said, adding, "I just thank her for coming out."

It is a long way from hosting soirees at Descante to joining forces with a right-wing conspiracy theorist at a beer hall. But it is a journey that Loeffler has undertaken in earnest as she seeks to conform to the tastes of Donald Trump's Republican Party -- just one of the many establishment Republicans who have embraced Trumpism in recent years.

For Loeffler, a political newcomer, the journey has meant breaking with old allies, picking new fights and struggling to explain away a life before politics when she occasionally gave money to Democrats, like former Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and rubbed elbows with Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who ran for Georgia governor in 2018. And her harsh criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement has run afoul of a long-standing convention in her adopted hometown, sometimes referred to as the Atlanta Way, in which the white corporate class has cultivated a level of solidarity with the city's African American leaders and civil rights movement.

In and around Buckhead, a version of the same question has been discreetly raised among some members of the senator's social circle: What happened to Kelly Loeffler?

In December, Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, named Loeffler, 49, to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who had resigned for health reasons. Her appointment was widely interpreted as an effort to make the Georgia Republican Party more palatable to middle-class moderates, especially educated women in the Atlanta suburbs who have been abandoning the party in the Trump era.

The appointment is short; Loeffler has to defend her seat in a special election Nov. 3. As the incumbent carrying the governor's blessing, however, she seemed to have an edge on opponents.

But Trump had made it known that he wanted Kemp to appoint Rep. Doug Collins, a hard-charging conservative who defended Trump at his impeachment. Soon Collins, too, jumped in the race.

The special election will not be preceded by primaries. Rather, it will be a free-for-all pitting the Republican candidates against a number of Democrats, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who pastors the Atlanta church once led by Martin Luther King Jr., and Matt Lieberman, the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

If no candidate earns a majority of the votes, the top two vote-getters will face off in a January runoff, which has set up a primary-like atmosphere for Loeffler and Collins, with each trying to out-conservative the other, and Loeffler cultivating a new image as a right-wing firebrand.

The change in Loeffler's public persona has been striking. She is married to Jeffrey C. Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. As a spokesperson for Intercontinental Exchange, the commodities and financial exchange company Sprecher founded in 2000, her name appeared regularly on business-wire news releases. In 2011, when she became a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, the city's WNBA franchise, she was praised, in local news stories, for supporting women's athletics.

The couple's names appeared on lists of charity donors, their photos on websites from fundraising galas. In 2011, they planned an event for Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, who has since become a villain among Trump supporters for voting to convict the president during his Senate impeachment trial. (Loeffler was also named, in 2012, to Romney's Georgia finance team.)

That was then. On Sept. 19, Loeffler posted on Twitter that she had just been in Ringgold, Georgia, with Greene at a rally with "Patriotic Georgians." One photo she posted showed the two women in the presence of camouflage-wearing members of the Georgia III% Martyrs, a far-right militia group, one of whom was carrying a military-style rifle.

But Collins, 54, may prove difficult to out-conservative. The son of a state trooper who hails from the northeast Georgia city of Gainesville, he has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association and a master's in divinity from a Baptist seminary. In recent months, he became a hero among Trump supporters, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, for his spirited defense of the president during his impeachment proceedings.

Loeffler's run-to-the-right strategy appears to be working so far: A poll conducted in mid-September by The New York Times and Siena College showed her ahead of the pack of candidates, with 23% support. The poll showed Collins with 19% support, tied with Warnock, while 27% of respondents said they were undecided.

 

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