Gov. Brian Kemp has a big decision to make: who will be Georgia’s next U.S. Senator?
The first-term Republican has leaned towards Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman who co-owns the local WNBA team and runs a bitcoin trading and storage company. But President Trump, whose Twitter endorsement helped push Kemp to a gubernatorial primary victory, has called for Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) to be selected.
The stakes are high: that person will have to run in a special election next fall, a potential runoff election in January 2020 and a regular election in 2022, when Kemp is up for re-election. And Democrats fresh off the heels of a Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta are looking to capitalize on demographic changes and dissatisfaction with Trump to flip both Senate seats and the presidential contest into their column come November.
In late August, Republican Johnny Isakson announced he would step down at the end of 2019 citing health concerns. Mid-September, Kemp opened up an online application portal for interested Georgians to submit their resumes for consideration, and hundreds of people answered the call before it closed November 18.
One of the first applications submitted belonged to Collins. One of the last was from Loeffler.
In an interview with GPB News in October, Kemp said that he was open to a non-traditional candidate that wasn’t necessarily politically involved as long as they fight hard for the state while in Washington.
“I think there's a case you could make for sending a good business person out there and someone that hasn't been involved in politics for a long time,” he said. “Of course, you can make the case that somebody who knows about the process would be a good pick too.”
That person would also have to withstand intense scrutiny in a polarized election, Kemp said.
Scrutiny has come from an unexpected place: the White House. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Kemp and Loeffler took an under-wraps trip to meet with the president on Sunday to discuss the Senate selection.
According to that report, “the private huddle turned tense and ended quickly” with Trump telling Kemp that appointing Loeffler would be taking a risk.
Trump and his allies support Collins, the fast-talking, hard-charging ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee who has played an integral role in defending the president during the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and represents the third-most Republican House district in the country.
Donald Trump, Jr. campaigned with him in Georgia last month and tweeted that Collins is a "fighter and exactly the kind of person Republicans should want in the Senate.” Several conservative groups have pushed the governor to appoint him and last night, Fox News host Sean Hannity called him a “rock star” Republican with a backbone.
Appointing Collins would put a knowledgeable and experienced politician into the Senate who could both legislate and fundraise at the same time with little need for a learning curve to adjust to Washington life. And the public support from Trump and other leaders would serve as an invaluable tool to energize the conservative base to turn out and vote in a potentially tight election where Republicans are fighting to retain both Senate seats and keep Trump in office.
Collins has indicated he is “strongly” considering a run for the Senate seat if he is not appointed.
Loeffler has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican causes and candidates over the years, including two $100,000 checks to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2018, $750,000 to a Mitt Romney super PAC in 2012 and local candidates like Sen. David Perdue and 7th Congressional District candidate Lynne Homrich. She has also occasionally donated to Democrats, like then-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in 2009 and Georgia House Rep. David Scott in 2008.
In her resume application to the governor, she wrote that she would “stand with President Trump, Senator David Perdue and you to Keep America Great” by focusing on things like fighting drug cartels and human trafficking, lowering health care costs and growing the economy.
Loeffler’s potential selection would be the latest opportunity taken by Gov. Kemp to appoint individuals from diverse backgrounds to government posts in a time when the Republican party is trying to expand its reach with non-white voters and regain a foothold with suburban women.
But in addition to the pressure campaign from Trump and his allies, several conservative activists have publicly charged that Loeffler is too moderate for the Senate seat, pointing to her campaign contributions to Democrats, the WNBA’s stance on social issues and accusing her of not being enough of an abortion-rights opponent.
For his part, Kemp has not publicly weighed in on his decision-making process or plans for the seat other than a rebuke of those who suggest he would not appoint someone who possesses conservative Republican values.
I stand with hardworking Georgians and @POTUS. The idea that I would appoint someone to the U.S. Senate that is NOT pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-freedom, and 100% supportive of our President (and his plan to Keep America Great) is ridiculous. (1 of 2) #gapol
— Brian Kemp (@BrianKempGA) November 27, 2019
“I stand with hardworking Georgians and @POTUS. The idea that I would appoint someone to the U.S. Senate that is NOT pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-freedom, and 100% supportive of our President (and his plan to Keep America Great) is ridiculous,” Kemp tweeted from his campaign account. “The attacks and games are absolutely absurd. Frankly, I could care less what the political establishment thinks. Happy Thanksgiving! More information after the holiday!”