Analysis: Kelly Loeffler will replace Isakson. It’s your move, Democrats

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The rollout of Kelly Loeffler was a disciplined affair.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s ceremonial office provided both a clean entrance and quick backdoor exit. A contingent of female state lawmakers, an endangered species on the Republican side, were brought front and center — as were Kemp’s wife and two daughters.

Reporters were admonished not to ask follow-up questions. No interrogation of the novice politician would be allowed. Press the governor or Loeffler on any point, a handler warned, and the event would be quickly shut down.

Once begun, the governor made an attempt to smooth over the fact that, by naming Loeffler as a replacement for the retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Kemp had rejected President Donald Trump’s endorsement of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. “Like Ivanka Trump, Kelly is smart, accomplished and a savvy businesswoman,” Kemp said in his introduction.

I did not mark it myself, but more than one woman noted that Loeffler, a wealthy finance executive, made her debut in a "pussy-bow" blouse of the sort Melania Trump used to great effect back in the day.

As a November 2020 candidate, Loeffler’s role will be to stop the bleeding of white voters in metro Atlanta suburbs. But clearly, her most immediate concern is a flanking movement from the rural right.

The first words out of Loeffler’s mouth Wednesday morning detailed her farming background and her ideological credentials: “I’m a devoted wife, a proud patriot and a devout Christian,” she said. “I’m a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.”

The question that now jumps up is what Democrats, who allege that a blue anti-Trump wave is on its way, will do in response. And the apparent answer is: Wait.

One thing for Democrats to absorb is the tall financial wall that Republicans have now thrown up around Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. As of Sept. 30, David Perdue reported $6 million in cash on hand — before a November fundraiser headlined by the president.

His two best-funded Democratic rivals, Teresa Tomlinson and Jon Ossoff, had raised $932,981 and $1,343,503, respectively, as of Sept. 30.

Loeffler, described by the governor as a business executive “outsider” in the mold of Perdue, has declared herself ready to spend $20 million of her own cash to keep her seat.

Another factor Democrats will want to weigh is the quality of Republican opposition that Loeffler is likely to draw. The barbarians at her $20 million gate won’t be just Democrats.

Unlike the challenge to Perdue, the contest for Loeffler’s seat — specifically, the last two years of Isakson’s six-year term — will be a “jungle” special election. The November ballot could include any number of Republicans and Democrats.

In a normal election cycle, a Republican incumbent worries about attacks from the right in a primary, then from the left in a general election against a Democratic opponent. In next year’s “jungle” election, the attacks on Loeffler will come from the right and left, simultaneously, for the next 11 months.

Doug Collins, the Georgia congressman who secured Trump’s blessing for the seat in November, has already threatened a challenge. But crossing a governor is no small thing in Georgia. Whether Collins follows through, or others are tempted, will depend on more signals from the president. And Trump has been publicly silent on the appointment since late November.

One GOP insider we ran into after Loeffler’s unveiling told us he hoped that Trump’s silence meant the president understood the implications of Republican civil war in Georgia. A party split over the U.S. Senate race could bleed into the presidential contest. And if Trump loses Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, the game might be up.

“Trump needs Georgia more than Georgia needs Trump,” he said.

Before they enter the fray, Democrats will also want some time after Jan. 1, when Loeffler’s tenure begins, to study what kind of candidate they face. Loeffler and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, the CEO of Intercontinental Exchange — which in turn owns the New York Stock Exchange — are intensely private. Google barely knows them.

A 2018 photo of Loeffler, a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, with Democrat Stacey Abrams surfaced this week. It was taken during a Dream game and appears to be a rare lapse in image discipline for the future senator.

For now, no Democrat we’ve talked to has told us that Kemp’s pick of Loeffler has discouraged them. “To be frank, after yesterday, it’s actually more appealing than it was,” state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said Thursday.

She’s one of several Democrats considering the contest, and Loeffler’s mansion is in her north Atlanta district.

“Republicans are trying to play identity politics by picking a woman, thinking that somehow that’s just what women do — just vote for women,” she said. “If that were the case, we would have had a female president a long time ago.

“If the Republican Party in Georgia were really trying to get some of these moderate suburban women back into the fold — it really isn’t about the messenger. It’s the message. When a candidate picked specifically for women comes out of the gate with issues that aren’t No. 1, 2 or 3 on any woman’s list that I know of — it comes across as inauthentic,” Jordan said.

One more reason Democrats might bide their time in cultivating a challenger to Loeffler: They may have plenty of it.

Michael Jablonski, a longtime Atlanta attorney who was chief counsel for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in Georgia, pointed me to a section of the Georgia Code that says the candidate qualifying period in special elections for the U.S. Senate can’t be closed until 60 days prior to the vote.

Next year, that would be in the neighborhood of Labor Day.

Republican experts have told us another portion of Georgia law applies, and qualifying will end much earlier. If it becomes a serious bone of contention, the issue could be addressed by the Legislature when it convenes in January.

In the meantime, Jablonski’s reading of the law raises an intriguing possibility. A Democrat in the contest to challenge Perdue, the GOP incumbent in the other Senate race, could lose a primary runoff in July — but then turn around and immediately enter the contest against Loeffler.

A recycled candidacy might not be the best idea in the world. But it’s another sign that we’re headed for a political year the likes of which we’ve never seen.