Georgia’s incoming senator embarks on a grassroots roll-out

Incoming U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler at a meet-and-greet on Dec. 30 in Carrollton, Ga. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Incoming U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler at a meet-and-greet on Dec. 30 in Carrollton, Ga. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Carrollton – The line snaked around Michelle Morgan’s living room, a crowd of curious locals stocked with Republican activists and officials who had read about Georgia’s next U.S. senator but wanted to meet her themselves.

In one week, Kelly Loeffler will be sworn into office in Washington. But she's still hardly known among the Republican activists and elected officials who form the backbone of the state party – and hold the keys to her electoral fate in 2020.

Since she was tapped by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month, Loeffler has embarked on a carefully planned roll-out that's involved interviews with scattered media outlets, calls to donors and activists and sit-downs with GOP officials. 

Over the last week, her debut entered a new phase of small gatherings at homes and businesses set up by her strategists. Recent stops brought her to Augusta, Homerville and, on Monday, the home of Carroll County’s commission chair.

Loeffler stood in the middle of Morgan’s finely decorated living room greeting county judges, city council members and local movers-and-shakers. Several remarked on the odd nature of the situation even as they expressed support for the incoming U.S. senator.

“We are trusting Governor Kemp to do the right thing,” said Christy Sammon, who was among those waiting to snap a photo with Loeffler. “We know the governor is conservative and trust that he knew what he was getting when he picked her. We’ll let her get in there and prove herself.”

More: Loeffler reaches out to skeptical Georgia GOP activists

More: Kemp’s Senate pick sparks rift in lieutenant governor’s office 

More: Inside how Kemp picked Loeffler for the U.S. Senate

The tour is a key part of Loeffler's introduction to Georgia voters. She faces a tough 2020 matchup against charged-up Democrats – one prominent candidate has already entered the race and others could follow – and the prospect of a GOP challenger.

Gov. Brian Kemp tapped finance executive Kelly Loeffler to a U.S. Senate seat. AJC/Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Her main Republican threat could be U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville conservative who was President Donald Trump's favorite for the seat. Collins recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he is still seriously considering a run, but has set no deadline to make up his mind.

The special election to fill out the remaining two years of retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term won’t be until November, and there’s no party primary to hash out nominees for the contest, one of two U.S. Senate races on Georgia’s 2020 ballot.

Still, Collins' timeframe is tight. Loeffler's promise to spend at least $20 million on the race increases the pressure on a Republican rival to get in soon to start raising cash and building out a statewide campaign to compete against Kemp's network.

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She's got more introducing ahead. A recent AJC survey of dozens of local party officials and county GOP chairmen showed many are taking a wait-and-see approach to Loeffler. Some are flat-out skeptical of her, others admit they had never heard of Loeffler before Kemp tapped her.

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That’s why Loeffler and her allies see her tour as a critical moment as she prepares to take office on Jan. 6.

“I know I have huge shoes to fill. Senator Isakson has been amazing for Georgia and for the country,” she recently told the AJC. “We’ve got a tremendous team and they’re helping me through this transition. I definitely knew it was going to be challenging, but I’m really enjoying it.”

She tells the gatherings about her experience as an executive with the Intercontinental Exchange, an Atlanta-based financial trading platform her husband runs. She’s just as likely, however, to talk about her upbringing on a farm in Illinois to connect with rural voters who make up much of the GOP base.

At an interview Monday with the local WLBB radio station, she reminisced about listening to soybean market updates on local radio, chuckling as she said she had a grasp on commodity futures before she took on some math fundamentals.

A staple of each event, too, has been a pledge to back Trump's agenda. She tells audiences she'll support his push to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, vote against efforts to impeach Trump and oppose restrictions on gun rights.

“Some of the events over the weekend show that the Second Amendment – in terms of being able to bear arms appropriately – is the right thing,” she told WLBB, bringing up a military marksmanship course she completed in college. “It’s vital that we protect the Second Amendment.”

More: AJC Interview: Loeffler vows to fight ‘impeachment sham’ in Senate

More: Loeffler to face 'minefield' of potential ethical issues

Her remarks aim to win over local GOP activists who fear she's a closet moderate, in part because of past contributions to Democratic candidates and her role as a co-owner of Atlanta's WNBA franchise, a league that caters to a more liberal fan base.

But she’s also trying to win over Trump and his top allies, hoping to at least keep him on the sidelines if Collins or another ally of the president decides to enter the race. At Monday’s event, several Loeffler supporters talked fearfully of a bitter internal battle playing out on the November ballot.

“Republicans need to unite behind her,” said Wendell Brown. “We don’t need any hint of rebellion. We’ve got to unite as Republicans and not have an inter-Republican war in an election time. We’ve got to get unified.”