Georgia Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, lost her Senate seat in the state’s runoff special election on Tuesday to her Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Though the AP and other media outlets have projected Warnock as the race’s winner with 98% of the votes counted, Loeffler has yet to concede. If the results hold, Warnock would be the first Georgia Democrat elected to the Senate in two decades.
As of Wednesday morning, Republican incumbent David Perdue, whose term ended on Sunday, trailed Democrat Jon Ossoff by a narrow margin in the state’s second Senate runoff race that is still too close to call.
Loeffler’s defeat means that GOP control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance—contingent upon a Perdue victory—in one of the most hotly contested and expensive congressional elections in history.
The runoff came after Loeffler finished second in the open November special election to Warnock, who gained considerable support over the last several months from one notable group: the WNBA, and particularly Loeffler’s Atlanta Dream.
Loeffler, who was appointed to fill Georgia’s vacant Senate seat in December 2019 by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, encountered a number of opponents in the 2020 Georgia U.S. Senate special election on both sides of the political aisle, but she perhaps faced no greater public opposition than that from her own Dream team.
Activism among WNBA players, on the Dream and throughout the league, amplified during this year’s bubble season in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The athletes’ public support of the Black Lives Matter movement solicited a response from the Republican Loeffler, who spoke against the league’s support of what she called the BLM “political movement” and the increasing politicization of sports, in a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Loeffler received sharp and swift backlash from the WNBA community—including those on her own team and league stars like Seattle’s Sue Bird. Dream players and the league’s players union called for her removal, citing the ousting of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014 after the release of voice recordings that captured him making racist comments. Speculation circulated about possible buyers for the team, but Engelbert maintained that the league would not push Loeffler out because of her politics.
Dream players took matters into their own hands, actively and publicly endorsing Warnock. Ahead of Atlanta’s Aug. 4 game against the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA’s bubble in Bradenton, Fla., Dream players arrived at the arena in black “Vote Warnock” shirts backing the candidate. The support for Loeffler’s opposition spread throughout the league and continued in the bubble—where games aired on national network television—on social media and ahead of the special election, even into runoff campaigning.
The Warnock team told the Financial Times that the campaign “raised nearly $300,000 in the 72 hours after the WNBA players wore their T-shirts” and added thousands of new grassroots donors during the same span. Warnock raised more than $100 million in the campaign, according to The Wall Street Journal, which also reported that more than three million votes were cast before Tuesday via early in-person voting and mail-in ballots.
Loeffler, the former Intercontinental Exchange executive and Bakkt CEO, purchased a minority stake in the team in 2010 and upped her investment the following year, when she and Mary Brock, wife of former Coca-Cola chairman and CEO John Brock, purchased the Dream. After several amicable years of ownership, tensions escalated this summer—turning to outright opposition.
For her part, Loeffler held on to her 49% ownership stake, refusing to sell despite the criticism. After her defeat, the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James shared a photo of the players in their Warnock shirts on social media.
“Think I’m gone put together an ownership group for The Dream. Whose in? #BlackVotesMatter,” the superstar wrote.
(This story has been updated to correct the day of the runoff election as Tuesday, not Monday.)