Exclusive: Georgia gov expected to tap finance exec for US Senate next week

Gov. Brian Kemp plans to tap financial executive Kelly Loeffler for a U.S. Senate seat next week as he pushes to expand the Georgia GOP’s appeal to women who have fled the party in recent years.

The appointment would defy President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders who have repeatedly urged the governor to appoint U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman who is one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Washington.

It would end months of jockeying for the seat to be vacated by Republican Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down at year's end because of health issues. Loeffler would be the second woman in Georgia history to serve in the U.S. Senate.

The governor is expected to announce Loeffler’s appointment at a press conference early next week, barring any last-minute change of heart, several senior GOP officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclusively. Kemp’s office declined to comment Friday.

Her appointment would do little to tamp down the internal Republican fighting over the seat. Trump and his allies have repeatedly pressed the governor to tap Collins, and the two were still at odds over Loeffler's appointment even after Kemp brought her to a secretive meeting with the president last week.

And it would come as no surprise to Republican insiders, who have labeled Loeffler the presumptive favorite ever since she submitted her application hours before a deadline imposed by Kemp.

Collins’ allies have aggressively pushed Kemp to appoint the congressman in recent weeks, describing the Gainesville Republican as a champion for conservative causes – and a bulwark against impeachment proceedings headed for the U.S. Senate.

And Collins has helped energize his supporters by telling the AJC that he is "strongly" considering a run for the Senate seat in next year's special election if he's not picked.

The special election — which will feature all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, on the same ballot — poses a conundrum for the Georgia GOP. If multiple well-funded Republicans enter the contest, they could slice up the GOP base, providing an opportunity for a Democrat with his or her party's unified support.

The state Democratic Party has yet to identify such a candidate. But several lower-profile contenders have entered the race, including Matt Lieberman, an educator and entrepreneur who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

“At this point, whatever pick Kemp makes will be significantly damaged,” party spokesman Alex Floyd said, “forced to limp into November 2020 facing inflamed tensions and internal fights at a time when Georgia Republicans can’t afford either.”

Instead of splitting the GOP base, Kemp has viewed the U.S. Senate opening as a chance to build on it, bringing female voters back to the Republican Party after years of losses in the suburbs.

He’s also mindful that his selection would not only be on the ballot in 2020 to fill out the remaining two years of Isakson’s term but also potentially alongside Kemp in 2022 when the governor runs for a second term.

November 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson speaks as GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp looks Monday evening  just a day before the election day at Brian Kemp for Governor Headquarters in Buckhead on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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Kemp’s allies say Loeffler, a first-time candidate, can help woo women who have bolted a party that’s dominated by white male elected officials. (If she is appointed, Loeffler would become the second woman to serve in the U.S. Senate from Georgia. Rebecca Latimer Felton served one day in the chamber in 1922 following the death of Tom Watson.)

Loeffler also could pump some of her own personal fortune into a campaign that could break fundraising records.

She runs the Bakkt bitcoin trading platform that’s a subsidiary of the Intercontinental Exchange, the behemoth Atlanta-based financial firm headed by her husband. She is also a co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise.

Her emergence as Kemp's favorite for the seat over Collins and other better-known contenders has sparked fierce pushback from some conservative leaders.

They criticize her past campaign contributions to Democrats and question her support for a range of key issues, such as gun rights and anti-abortion efforts. And they worry she’s not committed to Trump.

“If you substitute your judgement for the President’s, maybe you need a primary in 2022,” U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida lawmaker with close ties to Trump, wrote Friday in a tweet directed at Kemp. “Let’s see if you can win one w/o Trump.”

“We don’t know you and we don’t care what you think,” shot back Ryan Mahoney, a top Kemp adviser.

The president, who has directly appealed to Kemp to tap Collins three times in recent weeks, was said to be frustrated with the governor at the meeting Sunday and upset he wasn’t leaning toward Collins or another politically tested candidate.

November 8, 2019 Marietta: President Donald Trump is greeted by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp as he arrives at Dobbins AFB on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Marietta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Loeffler’s allies have tried to allay those fears by pointing to her recent contributions to the Republican National Committee, including two $100,000 checks she and her husband wrote this month to participate in a Trump roundtable in Atlanta.

She also indicated in her Senate application that she shares Kemp's priorities to "strengthen the border, shutdown drug cartels and human traffickers, lower healthcare costs, and protect our national interests."

“If chosen, I will stand with President Trump, Senator David Perdue, and you to Keep America Great,” she wrote to Kemp, invoking the president’s 2020 campaign slogan.

Kemp’s supporters, meanwhile, have loudly pleaded for the GOP faithful to trust the governor, whose runaway victory in the 2018 Republican primary runoff was fueled by Trump’s late endorsement.

And the governor this week took to Twitter amid growing conservative backlash to vent about "ridiculous" attacks that he would consider someone for the U.S. Senate who isn't sufficiently conservative or "100% supportive" of Trump.

"The attacks and games are absolutely absurd," he said on social media. "Frankly, I could care less what the political establishment thinks."

Loeffler emerged from a crowd of potential candidates that included current and former officeholders, business executivesa U.S. ambassador, decorated military veterans and radio commentators. A Democratic state legislator even applied on the governor's website.

A smaller group of top contenders vetted by Kemp's advisers emerged last week. They include state Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House; and Jackie Gingrich Cushman, an author and financial executive who is the daughter of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Two Kemp administration officials also made the list: Robyn Crittenden, who briefly succeeded Kemp as secretary of state and runs the state's largest agency; and Allen Poole, a former county commissioner who now heads a state highway department.