Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the two Republican Senate incumbents from Georgia facing runoff elections on 5 January, are trying to nationalize their respective races. They have spent much of their time saying that if their opponents win, thereby giving Democrats a narrow majority in the senate, the country will be unrecognizably altered. They spin horror stories about a liberal dystopia, focusing particular ire on Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, a Black Atlanta pastor named the Rev Raphael Warnock, and mostly ignoring Perdue’s opponent, the white former investigative journalist Jon Ossoff. The incumbents have tried to mimic Donald Trump’s rhetoric, making poorly veiled racist overtures to the white grievance voters whose turnout they will need in order to keep their seats. Loeffler has gone on conservative media to scaremonger about Black Lives Matter; Perdue pulled a juvenile stunt at a Trump rally in which he pointedly and deliberately mispronounced Kamala Harris’ first name.
The high stakes of their races, as well as these kinds of theatrics from Loeffler and Perdue, have functioned, maybe intentionally, to distract from their own conduct in office, which has raised questions and sparked investigations from the justice department, congressional ethics authorities and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Loeffler and Perdue, two of the Senate’s richest members, have each been accused of using their office to get privileged information that they used to make advantageous stock trades. (The cases against Perdue and Loeffler were closed without charges this summer.)
The investigation was centered on stock trades made after the senators attended a closed-door Senate briefing on the coronavirus in January 2020 – before the severity of the coronavirus and its economic repercussions were clear to most Americans. Both Loeffler and Perdue made windfalls in financial transactions, dumping stocks that were damaged by the pandemic and investing in stocks that later soared in value as a result of new restrictions.
For Loeffler, the sheer size of the transactions are enormous. Loeffler, whose husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and who herself had a long career in finance, is nearly a billionaire, worth an estimated $800m with her husband. Following the briefing on 24 January, trades of individual stocks were made on their behalf. By mid-February, there had been 29 trades, and 27 of them had been sales, valued between $1,275,000 and $3.1m. One of the two stocks they bought was for Citrix Systems, a software company that offers teleworking technology. Loeffler has defended herself by saying her stocks are in a blind trust handled by third-party advisers, and that she does not direct their trades.
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Her Georgia Senate colleague, David Perdue, has a much longer history of conspicuous trading, but perhaps this can simply be attributed to the fact that he has been in office for longer. A former executive at companies like Dollar General and Reebok, Perdue has been a Georgia senator since 2015. In the wake of the 24 January briefing, he was even more prolific in his stock trades than Loeffler. In March, he made 112 stock transactions – about three times his usual rate of trade – buying $1.8m in stock and selling $825,000 worth of stock. Among the companies that Perdue invested in during this time was DuPont, which manufactures personal protective equipment. Before 2 March, Perdue had made 10 different purchases of DuPont stock. He also invested heavily in Netflix. On the other side of the ledger, he sold shares he held in Caesar Entertainment, a casino company. A spokesperson for Senator Perdue, John Burke, has said: “Senator Perdue has always followed the law.”
But Perdue has been making eyebrow-raising stock transactions for much of his Senate term, beginning long before the coronavirus took hold over the nation. He traded in FireEye, a cybersecurity company, while serving on the Senate’s cyber security subcommittee. He bought shares of BWX Technologies, a navy contractor that supplies submarine components, a few weeks before joining the Senate’s seapower subcommittee. He traded in an Atlanta-based financial firm, First Data, while serving on the Senate’s banking committee. Often, according to the New York Times, these trades were made with conspicuously good timing. After selling his entire stake in First Data in November of 2018, Perdue repurchased stock in the company in late December 2018 – just three weeks before First Data announced a merger with the financial technology company Fiserv. Throughout his time in office, Perdue has made a staggering 2,596 stock trades. His transactions account for one third of the total stock trades made by all members of the Senate over the past six years.
Loeffler and Perdue’s financial antics have underscored the degree to which the Republican party is part of the very swamp that Donald Trump decries
It’s important to note that both Loeffler and Perdue have denied wrongdoing, and that a Senate ethics committee investigation into senators’ trades following the January coronavirus briefing ultimately cleared all senators save one – Republican Richard Burr, of North Carolina. Although it is unusual for senators to trade in individual stocks, it is not illegal for Loeffler and Perdue to do so. Both senators claim that they do not make decisions about stock trades on their own, but rely on their financial advisers to make trading decisions.
Loeffler and Perdue are campaigning on a message that their opponents are culturally out of step with everyday Georgians, and political analysts say that Loeffler, in particular, was appointed by Kemp as part of a bargain to appeal to ordinary suburban women, voters who might be put off by Trump’s vulgarity and excess. But the senators’ obscene wealth and use of the stock market to gain even more money, coupled with a seeming indifference to the ways that their actions are perceived by Georgia voters, strains this premise past the point of credulity.
Loeffler owns a private jet. Perdue lives in an island gated community. Both are trading vast sums of money in a financial market to which most Americans do not have anything like their access. These are not ordinary Georgians. If anything, Loeffler and Perdue’s financial antics have underscored the degree to which the Republican party is part of the very swamp that Donald Trump decries. The question now is whether voters will see them for what they really are.