11/04/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Gov. Brian Kemp answers questions from the media following a press conference to announce a proposed limited expansion of Medicaid in Georgia while at the State Capitol building in Atlanta, Monday, November 4, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The Jolt: Brian Kemp paints himself into a corner

After Donald Trump’s endorsement of Brian Kemp’s gubernatorial bid last year, the candidate’s advisers were clear: No deal was cut to ensure the president’s support.

Many were skeptical at the time, but one year later, it’s clear that Kemp believes he signed no IOU. The problem is that Trump may not hold the same opinion.

The governor could be on the verge of tapping financial executive Kelly Loeffler to a soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat, defying Trump’s repeated appeals to go with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins instead.

The governor is sandwiched in a vise that only seems likely to tighten. On Sunday, he telegraphed his support for Loeffler, a wealthy self-funder, by bringing her to that fateful White House visit with Trump.

So backing away could damage his political clout and erase his hopes of putting -- in GOP terms -- an unconventional candidate in office.

But tapping Loeffler could be just as tricky. Collins has amassed a legion of grassroots supporters who have flooded social media with messages of support – and Kemp’s office with phone calls and letters urging him to back the four-term congressman.

That drumbeat seems to grow louder by the day. Fox News host Sean Hannity had Collins on as a guest Tuesday night, opening a chat about impeachment with a full-throated endorsement of his Senate aspirations.

“I’d like the governor to appoint you. Because you have turned into a rock star – a Republican with a backbone,” said Hannity. “You went out there and you released transcripts that no other Congressman would release. That is the type of leadership we need in the Senate.”

Collins said there’s still time for Kemp to appoint him – and avert a potentially messy challenge he’s threatened.

“We believe we can not only be great for Georgia, but be great for the president,” he told the TV host.

But there’s been no recent contact between Kemp and Collins, which argues against reconciliation.

There are face-saving ways out of the situation for both political camps, including a caretaker appointment who could fill Johnny Isakson’s seat until November 2020, allowing the issue to be hashed out by Georgia voters. 

But that appears unlikely -- it would essentially require Georgia Republicans to give up the advantage of incumbency in 2020, which could be a tough election year.

Also worth noting: Most Georgia elected officials have gone silent, at least publicly, not yet willing to openly support Collins or say they’ll back Loeffler or whoever Kemp appoints. 

Our hunch is that Kemp sticks with his gut and appoints Loeffler, triggering an all-out Republican feud on next year’s ballot.

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More news on the topic: A Wall Street Journal account of the stand-off moves the needle by placing the Sunday meeting of Trump, Kemp and Loeffler on the record -- but with an atmospheric description that has been contradicted by others:

“President Trump had a very nice meeting at the White House on Sunday with Gov. Kemp of Georgia,” Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary and communications director, said in a statement. “They discussed many things including his potential appointment of a senator and the timing of the appointment. Various names were discussed. It was a very friendly meeting.”

The WSJ piece also includes this line:

At one point Mr. Trump questioned why they were holding the meeting if Mr. Kemp had made his decision.

This points to what may have been the most dangerous aspect of Kemp’s trip to the White House with his candidate. Like many other Republicans, the governor is genuinely worried about the abandonment of the GOP by white, college-educated women in north metro Atlanta suburbs. The Trump presidency is a major cause of that shift. So when Kemp presented Loeffler as a solution, the governor was also underlining -- no doubt unintentionally -- the fact that Trump is a source of the problem. 

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In related news, Kelly Loeffler’s camp bought the web domain loefflerforsenate.com on Nov. 17 — the day before she turned in her Senate application to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office. 

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We have a new entrant in the U.S. Senate contest for Sen. David Perdue’s seat.

Maya Dillard Smith has filed paperwork to run against Perdue next year, joining a field of Democrats that includes executive Sarah Riggs Amico, former 6th District candidate Jon Ossoff, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.

Dillard Smith said she plans to run a “people-powered campaign.” 

“We are in this campaign to win,” she said. “There’s a clear pathway to victory on behalf of everyday Georgians about our core values. This is a campaign for the people.”

She’s perhaps best known for stepping down in 2016 as head of the state ACLU chapter in protest of the group’s support for controversial efforts to let transgender people use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

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The Georgia Republican Assembly occasionally bills itself as the Republican wing of the Georgia GOP, and does include a large portion of the state’s Republican activists.

The group’s president, Alex Johnson of DeKalb County, dropped us a note on Tuesday:

Contrary to the fake news hype of Loeffler vs. Collins, and claims of conservative "grassroots support" for both, it doesn't actually exist. The *members* of the only fully volunteer Republican grassroots group in Georgia that actually endorses candidates overwhelmingly supported a resolution for Brian Kemp to appoint Paul Broun to the Senate seat in September. 

Broun is a former congressman from Athens. He gave up his seat in 2014 for a U.S. Senate bid.

***

And one more Doug Collins tidbit: the U.S. House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a meeting on Dec. 4 to discuss the ins and outs of impeaching President Donald Trump. 

The Gainesville representative will have a prominent role in that proceeding as the ranking Republican on the committee. This initial Judiciary hearing will feature experts on the Constitution and impeachment laws, but that leaves plenty of room for Collins to attempt to punch holes in the Democratic-led inquiry.

The more he defends Trump at his meeting, the more some conservatives will continue to back his Senate bid. That is, regardless of whether Kemp has made his pick by then or not.

***

While Congress has focused on impeachment and a possible government shutdown in December, less attention has been paid to a pending new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as USMCA, is intended to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. It was negotiated by the White House, but Democrats in Congress have held up ratifying the compact because of concerns about its impact on American workers.

The president and congressional Republicans had hoped the agreement could be finalized by the end of the year, but time is running out. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently said the factions are close to a deal.

“We are within range of a substantially improved agreement for America’s workers,” she wrote in a statement on Monday. “Now, we need to see our progress in writing from the Trade Representative for final review.”

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The Morning Jolt will not be published tomorrow and Friday. We will return to our regular schedule on Monday, Dec. 2.

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