Gov. Brian Kemp embarked on a secretive trip to Washington with Kelly Loeffler, his favorite for a U.S. Senate opening, to try to win Donald Trump’s support after the president repeatedly pushed for another rival, according to several people with direct knowledge of the discussions.
The Sunday trip did not go as expected for Kemp, who encountered a president who was said to be frustrated with his decision-making process and blunt about his support for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and others whom he considered to be safer political picks.
The meeting, not previously disclosed, lasted roughly an hour and involved the governor, Loeffler and Nick Ayers, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence. Ayers, who also served as a Trump adviser and remains close to the president, was brought in to facilitate conversations between both politicians.
It raised new questions about whether Kemp can unite a fractious state Republican Party with his pick, as grassroots conservatives criticize Loeffler and promote Collins, a four-term congressman and ardent Trump ally, as the best candidate to hold the seat in 2020.
Collins has fueled the push for his appointment by threatening to run even if he’s not tapped for the job, a move that could trigger a nasty Republican rift in an election year.
Details emerged Tuesday from several people who knew about the confidential meeting but were not authorized to speak publicly about it. The governor’s office declined to comment about the meeting but issued a broad statement after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s report.
“Governor Kemp plans to appoint a strong supporter of the President who will end the impeachment circus and advance conservative policies that Keep America Great,” Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said in a statement.
The fact that Loeffler accompanied the governor to the White House was rare proof that he favors her in the selection process. Loeffler was a last-minute applicant for the seat U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is giving up at the end of the year for health reasons. She has never run for office, though she briefly considered a 2014 run for the Senate seat Republican David Perdue won.
Loeffler, a financial executive and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, could pump some of her own fortune into a campaign that’s expected to shatter fundraising records.
Some observers think she could also help broaden the appeal of a Georgia GOP dominated by male elected officials by drawing suburban women who have fled the party since Trump's election.
Kemp has long been keen on searching for an unconventional candidate to help broaden the party's appeal – and his own. His pick will frame next year's election and be expected to run again in 2022, when the governor seeks another term.
But conservative activists have sounded the alarm, worried that Loeffler is too moderate -- citing past campaign contributions to Democratic candidates -- and that she won't be able to connect with voters because of her lofty financial status.
And several members of Trump’s inner circle have vocally backed Collins, a four-term congressman from Gainesville who is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and one of the president’s biggest defenders in impeachment proceedings.
A GOP clash?
Few know better than Kemp how crucial Trump's support can be in Georgia GOP circles. A surprise tweet from the president six days ahead of last year's GOP runoff helped Kemp catapult ahead of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the race for governor. His allies worry that the president could do irrevocable damage to Loeffler with a few keystrokes.
Kemp's aides are under increasing pressure from Collins, who has said he's "strongly" considering a run for the job even if he's not tapped, and his allies.
After months of quiet jockeying, Collins' advocates have embarked on a full-scale campaign seeking his appointment, using leaked polls, social media posts and damaging stories in conservative outlets.
And some conservatives have scrutinized the WNBA's leaguewide support for Planned Parenthood and the Atlanta Dream's opposition to a Georgia "religious liberty" proposal after Loeffler bought a stake in the team.
"Appointing Ms. Loeffler to the U.S. Senate wouldn't just be promoting a liberal to replace a conservative, it would make a mockery of those who cast votes for Senator Isakson, Governor Kemp and President Trump," Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin said.
Loeffler’s degree of support for Trump is also under the microscope.
Though she didn’t contribute to Trump’s 2016 election bid, financial records show Loeffler and her husband have given roughly $400,000 through the Republican National Committee since 2017 - including two $100,000 checks this month for a Trump campaign event in Atlanta.
Democrats, who have yet to field a party-backed candidate, have enjoyed the fallout across the aisle. State party spokesman Alex Floyd highlighted the possibility that the “tension and infighting” surrounding his choice will help Democrats.
“It’s clear,” Floyd said, “that Governor Kemp is now in deep trouble no matter who he chooses, facing attacks from his own party as his ‘fiasco’ of a Senate appointment process keeps spiraling out of control even more than it already has.”
More: Collins' allies ramp up pressure on Kemp to tap him to Senate