The WNBA has a frosty relationship with Donald Trump.
That’s not exactly surprising. After all, the demographic makeup of the women’s basketball league is 83 percent players of color (two groups Trump could charitably be described as “struggling” to win over), according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
In fact no WNBA champion, including the 2019 Washington Mystics, has visited Trump at the White House — once a pro forma event that has been upended and politicized since Trump took office.
“It’s hard not to think that gender is playing a role here because of the consistency with which men’s teams are being invited and celebrated,” Cheryl Reeve, coach of the 2017 WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx told The Washington Post after failing to receive a White House invite. “I think it reflects the priorities of this particular administration.” The 2018 champion Seattle Storm said they had no interest in attending.
All of this could place Republican business executive Kelly Loeffler, the newly appointed senator from Georgia, and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, in a precarious spot.
Loeffler, a multimillionaire who can self-fund, will have to win a jungle style special election in 2020, which could go to a January 2021 run-off should a candidate fail to capture a majority of votes. Before Loeffler’s pick became official, Collins hinted he may run for the seat anyway.
Some conservative groups are already going after Loeffler’s WNBA ties.
“The WNBA has been an outspoken supporter of Planned Parenthood, even partnering with the pro-abortion organization in opposing President Trump’s pro-life policies,” the Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative evangelical group, said in a statement.
Loeffler, who has never held elected office, is attempting to brand herself as “pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump,” as she said during a Wednesday press conference announcing her appointment. “And I make no apologies for my conservative values and will proudly support President Trump’s conservative judges.”
Having never served office, she’s somewhat of a blank slate. But in today’s Trump-dominated Republican Party, the central question for GOP politicians is where they stand on Trump, the most polarizing president in modern American history. While it’s not impossible to survive his withering contempt, many of Trump’s outspoken intra-party critics have retired or been defeated (see: Sanford, Mark … twice).
But Loeffler wouldn’t be the first Georgia politician whose ownership of an Atlanta basketball franchise became a flashpoint during a heated campaign.
The bitter 1970 Democratic primary for Georgia governor between Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Carl Sanders featured the Atlanta Hawks and dirty racial politics.
Carter aides were responsible for distributing flyers of Sanders, then a part-owner of the Hawks, that featured a photo of African American player Lou Hudson pouring champagne over Sanders’ head while celebrating a victory, according to Jon Ward’s book “Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party.”
Sanders carried to his grave a grudge against Carter, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2013 that the flyer’s message was, “Here’s Carl Sanders making love with the blacks.” Carter, who lost the 1966 governor’s race to segregationist Lester Maddox, denied any knowledge of the flyers.
Loeffler’s appointment ends Kemp’s monthslong open selection process that began in August when Isakson announced his impending retirement. During that time Trump lobbied incessantly on Collins’ behalf, to no avail.
Kemp’s selection of Loeffler is an attempt to broaden an overwhelmingly white male political party’s appeal and hang on to the suburbs, where Democrats are making inroads with women turned off by Trump. The governor also has to consider whom he wants on the ballot with him in 2022 as he faces a potential rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who came within a bulldog’s whisker of defeating him in 2018.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump’s allies from criticizing Kemp and the largely unknown Loeffler. Fox News personality and Trump defender Sean Hannity encouraged his viewers to flood Kemp’s phone lines. Rep. Matt Gaetz got into a Twitter fight with some Kemp aides, suggesting the governor needs a 2022 primary challenge.
As Trump has tightened his grip around the Republican Party, he’s demonstrated again and again that he equates support for the party with personal support for him. His bunker mentality leads to litmus tests that don’t leave room for equivocation. You are either with him or against.
As Loeffler introduces herself to more voters it will be fascinating to watch how she attempts to appease a suspicious conservative base loyal to Trump while operating in a professional sports league so at odds with him.