Intercontinental Exchange is a $65bn pillar of the US corporate world, listing blue-chip stocks on its New York Stock Exchange and running the market that helps set the price of global crude oil.
But the 20-year-old Atlanta-based company has become better known in political circles as the launch pad for Georgia’s Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, a former executive who joined ICE in its infancy and is married to the exchange’s chief executive Jeffrey Sprecher.
Ms Loeffler, who was head of investor relations for ICE and later chief executive of Bakkt, an ICE subsidiary for bitcoin products, is now in the throes of a hotly contested race to hold on to her US Senate seat ahead of a run-off election on Tuesday. She has gone to great lengths to curry favour with supporters of President Donald Trump.
She has warned that her Democratic opponent Raphael Warnock will turn the US into a socialist country and called for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to resign after he oversaw a US presidential election that resulted in a narrow victory for Joe Biden.
Ms Loeffler has also welcomed the endorsement of a Republican who supported QAnon, the conspiracy theory that purports Mr Trump is protecting Americans from a cabal engaging in cannibalism and paedophilia. And last month a photo circulated of her smiling next to a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, which was subsequently disavowed by her campaign.
Her increasingly bellicose rhetoric has caused consternation inside the industry where she used to work, with former colleagues and acquaintances asking whether her politics have hardened or if it is all an act to win an election in which she needs strong support from Mr Trump’s loyal base.
Former colleagues say they knew Ms Loeffler was a pro-business Republican, but that she did not dabble in conspiracy theories or dog-whistle politics while working at the company.
“I always enjoyed working with Kelly,” said a financial executive who knows her well. The executive recalled thinking after Ms Loeffler was sworn in early 2020 to replace the retiring senator Johnny Isakson: “I just got increasingly horrified. Who is this person?” In her first television appearance after being appointed to the Senate, Ms Loeffler described herself as “pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall”.
Ms Loeffler joined ICE when it was just a start-up and still has strong ties to the company.
The exchange’s employees and their family members have been the largest individual source of donations to both her campaign and Georgia United Victory, a super political action committee, this year, according to government records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Ms Loeffler’s campaign has raked in more than $92m this campaign cycle; more than two-thirds of the funds were raised between October and the end of 2020. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, almost 40 per cent of the funds came from “large individual contributions”, while just over a quarter was “self-financed” by Ms Loeffler.
Individuals affiliated with ICE, chief among them Mr Sprecher, have given more than $21m to Georgia United Victory, according to the CRP, with most of that money spent on negative ads against Ms Loeffler’s opponents.
An August fundraiser for Ms Loeffler, held at the Atlanta Country Club, featured six senior ICE executives on the list of hosts, according to an invitation seen by the Financial Times. They included Ben Jackson, president; Scott Hill, chief financial officer; and Andrew Surdykowski, general counsel.
ICE declined to comment. The Loeffler campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Much is at stake in Ms Loeffler’s race, along with another Georgia Senate contest that will also be decided in Tuesday’s run-offs: unless Democrats win both seats, Republicans will continue to control the second chamber of Congress and the power to frustrate Mr Biden’s legislative agenda.
Associates have long assumed that Ms Loeffler and Mr Sprecher are Republicans; both were major donors to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012.
But ICE employees say their political views did not result in a partisan workplace. Some members of the board are Democrats. Duriya Farooqui, an ICE independent director since 2017, has tweeted messages supporting Mr Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris.
ICE insiders describe the company’s internal culture, which Ms Loeffler helped to foster, as being close-knit and relentlessly driven with generous pay for those who work hard. But they insist it was tolerant and inclusive, which is why her recent lurch to the right was surprising.
Ms Loeffler’s political positions have caused some discomfort at the company, according to several people with knowledge of conversations within ICE. “They will send me articles, saying ‘I can’t believe that Kelly is saying this stuff’,” said an industry executive with friends who work for the company, which has more employees in New York than in Atlanta.
The generally accepted explanation inside ICE and Washington alike is that Ms Loeffler is playing to a Trumpian crowd.
“Ultimately she is making the calculation that . . . we are talking about a pure base election, and given that, running to the right as much as she can is probably her best strategy,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with the Loeffler campaign. “You are not going to win a run-off by talking about bipartisan compromises.”
“If I had to guess what is going on, I’d say her political strategists believe that Trump’s message, policy and stances run deep in Georgia,” said a person who has known Ms Loeffler for 15 years.
“The KKK pic was a shock to me and others who know her, and I’d have to give her the benefit of the doubt that she simply took a picture with one of many people who want a quick pic or selfie,” he added.
Mr Heye said Ms Loeffler’s photo with a former KKK leader “should . . . be a deal breaker. But we just don’t know in our 2020 politics if it will be.”
Ms Loeffler had not been Mr Trump’s first choice to fill the vacant Senate slot in Georgia, and some argue that has proved instrumental in her support of the president.
“She’s really trying to prove herself,” said one former ICE employee. “In politics, people follow policies they don’t always believe.”