Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, walks past a House Oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Kemp aides go nuclear on ‘cowardly’ criticism of Senate favorite 

‘We don’t know you and we don’t care what you think.’

An “acid-washed jean shorts” wearing Floridian with “Stacey Abrams syndrome.” An “oddly submissive” outsider telling Georgians what to do. A “cowardly” interloper who stuffs Pokémon cards in his pockets and “can’t cut it in south Georgia.”

Facing shots over his planned pick for an open U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Brian Kemp’s inner circle unleashed a special type of vitriol against U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida after he blasted the governor’s plans to select financial executive Kelly Loeffler.

With a vigor that evoked memories of the 2018 campaign, Kemp’s advisers slammed the Floridian after he called for the Georgia governor to be challenged in 2022 and questioned whether he could win re-election.  

Kemp’s advisers are happy to make a collective enemy out of Gaetz instead of the Georgia activists who have pressured the governor to tap U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who they consider a more proven conservative, over Loeffler. 

They’re pushing to reframe the narrative from one that casts Kemp as defying President Donald Trump, who is wildly popular among Georgia Republicans, to one that pits the governor against a Floridian outsider who represents a “ridiculous” establishment.  

Still, the scathing back-and-forth took even veteran mudslingers by surprise. Brian Robinson, a former top deputy to Gov. Nathan Deal versed in the art of razor-sharp barbs, drew a putrid line to a legal battle over water rights between the two states. 

“Traditionally, the water wars between Georgia and Florida haven’t been of the yellow-water variety,” he quipped.

‘Hurting’ Trump?

It started Friday shortly after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Kemp plans to tap Loeffler to the seat instead of Collins, despite intense pressure from Trump and many of his top allies. 

Among them is Gaetz, a lawyer who represents a stretch of Florida’s Panhandle and has built a reputation as one of Trump’s top defenders. He’s also a friend of Collins, and he has urged Kemp not to “betray” the president by picking Loeffler for the spot.

MoreExclusive: Georgia gov expected to tap finance exec for US Senate next week 
MoreKemp criticizes ‘ridiculous’ conservative pushback to Senate favorite 

He took the news of Kemp’s expected announcement harshly, invoking last week’s secret meeting between the governor, Loeffler and Trump in Washington. It ended with Kemp and Trump at odds over Loeffler’s potential promotion. 

Kelly Loeffler, left, has applied for a U.S. Senate seat. AP Photo.

“It’s not the establishment you are screwing with your donor-induced stubbornness. You are hurting President Trump. You know this because he told you,” Gaetz tweeted, later mentioning how Loeffler donated to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid but not to Trump in 2016.

“You are ignoring his request because you THINK you know better than @POTUS,” he added, referring to Trump. “If you substitute your judgement for the President’s, maybe you need a primary in 2022. Let’s see if you can win one w/o Trump.”

Enter Kemp adviser Ryan Mahoney, who helped the governor craft the anti-establishment message that propelled his 2018 victory. He mocked Gaetz’s “tight” jorts – a favorite Georgia jab at Florida football fans – and questioned whether they had enough pockets for jelly beans and Legos.

“Oh...and mind your own business,” he wrote. “We don’t know you and we don’t care what you think.”

‘Focus on Florida’

Other Kemp confidantes jumped in, seizing the opportunity to target Gaetz instead of taking on Georgia critics who have assailed Loeffler, like Tanya Ditty of the Concerned Women for America’s state chapter and tea party organizer Jenny Beth Martin.

Gov. Brian Kemp (right), House Speaker David Ralston, along with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (not in photo) held a press conference after the passage of SB 106, the "Patient's First" bill. Monday was the 36th legislative day of the 2019 Georgia general assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall compared Gaetz to Abrams, the Democrat who lost last year’s gubernatorial election but didn’t concede. Candice Broce, a top Kemp deputy, chided him to “focus on Florida and study federalism” and mocked his spelling.  

And they pointed to a blunt statement from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who also engineered a tricky U.S. Senate appointment. He picked Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill an open seat last year despite last-minute appeals from the White House to hold off. She defeated a Democrat a few months later.

@GovKemp will make the right decision,” Bryant wrote. “I had a similar opportunity and appointed a great Conservative woman U.S. Senator who has voted with President Trump 100% of the time.” 

Gaetz, meanwhile, continued to take aim at Kemp. He questioned whether the governor could withstand a 2022 primary against a Trump-endorsed challenge, called Loeffler “undesirable” and said Kemp was “so scared of Abrams that you’re making a bad Senate pick.”

As to his wardrobe, Gaetz denied wearing jean shorts or acid-washed clothing but said he proudly dons cargo pants with plenty of pockets for his stuff. 

“Legos and jellybeans are awesome,“ he tweeted. “Your Senate pick isn’t.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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