How a WNBA owner could tip the balance of American politics

CBC Sports' Jesse Campigotto examines controversial Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler's place in a pair of crucial run-off elections that could reshape the U.S.

Controversial Kelly Loeffler is involved in a crucial Senate run-off

U.S. Senator and Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, seen here at a campaign stop Sunday in Georgia, is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

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Now that the electoral college has confirmed Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential election, all eyes are on a pair of unresolved Senate races in the state of Georgia that could determine the course of American politics for the next few years.

Quick background: There are 100 seats in the U.S. Senate — two for each state. Following the November election, 50 belong to Republicans and 48 to either Democrats or independents who align with them. Georgia's two seats are still undecided because of a rule there that requires a candidate to earn at least 50 per cent of the votes to win the election. No one did, so now the top two in each race are going head-to-head in a special "run-off" election to decide the winners.

If the Democrats take both, it will create a 50-50 split in the Senate, where the tiebreaking vote goes to vice president-elect Kamala Harris. Democrats also control the House of Representatives, and they're about to take over the White House. So winning these two Georgia seats would put them in command of the federal lawmaking structure for at least the next two years. It would also boot their arch-enemy Mitch McConnell from his job as Senate Majority Leader and clear the way for Biden to appoint left-leaning federal judges. It could even open the door for changes to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, both parties believe they can win the two Georgia seats. Biden just became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992, but it was very close. He got 49.5 per cent of the vote to Donald Trump's 49.3 per cent — a margin of fewer than 12,000 votes.

The combination of extremely high stakes and an uncertain outcome has resulted in both parties pouring everything they've got into the run-offs. Trump showed up in person this month to campaign for the Republican candidates, and Biden was scheduled to do the same today. Hundreds of millions of dollars (much of it from out of state) have flowed into the campaigns, with ads flooding local TV and other media.

So what's the sports link? Well, one of the people running is Kelly Loeffler, an incumbent who was appointed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp in January to replace a senator who resigned for health reasons. Loeffler's husband founded and runs the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, and she was the CEO of a subsidiary until leaving to take the Senate job. She's also a co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream.

As a vocal supporter of Trump and various Republican-adjacent views, Loeffler has found herself increasingly at odds with the WNBA. Its most outspoken players fall firmly to the left on social issues, and the league itself has made progressivism a key element of its brand. But Loeffler criticized the WNBA's embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement because she felt it "undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion." She also offended some members of the league with a social-media post that appeared to endorse a Georgia group's view that transgender athletes should not be allowed to participate in girls' and women's sports.

The WNBA issued a statement in July saying Loeffler hasn't served as the Dream's governor since October 2019 and "is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team." But she remains a co-owner, despite some active WNBA players' calls for her to be removed. Among them: Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud tweeted "Get her weak ass out of our league" and Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark accused Loeffler of giving off "Donald Sterling vibes."

The anti-Loeffler campaign reached another level in the WNBA's Florida bubble, where players on several teams (including Atlanta) wore "Vote Warnock" t-shirts to their games. That was a reference to Raphael Warnock, the Black pastor running as a Democrat against Loeffler. She responded with a statement saying, "This is just more proof that the out of control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them. It's clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball."

Now Loeffler is going head-to-head with Warnock in the run-off after finishing second to him in November. Loeffler received 25.9 per cent of the vote to Warnock's 32.9 per cent. The third-place candidate on that 20-person ballot was a Republican who got 20 per cent. No Democrat other than Warnock earned more than 6.6 per cent.

Early in-person voting for the run-off began yesterday. Election day is Jan. 5. The WNBA is watching. And so is the rest of the world.

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