Kelly Loeffler, left, a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and the head of the Bakkt financial services firm, was among the last to apply to fill U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s website. Gov. Brian Kemp shut down the application process Monday. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Big names join shortlist for Isakson’s U.S. Senate seat at last minute

Gov. Brian Kemp’s quest to pick a new U.S. senator entered a new phase Monday with a string of late applications from several of his deputies, along with a high-profile executive who made a stir when she put her name into consideration hours before a deadline.

The governor’s unorthodox decision to post an online “help wanted” sign inviting the public to apply for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat yielded more than 500 resumes over two months, including a series of contenders who raised their hand just before he closed the process.

With the application process closed and vetting well underway, the Republican governor is expected to soon appoint a successor to Isakson, who announced in August that he was retiring at the end of the year because of health reasons. Kemp’s decision could possibly come within the next week.

The group of candidates seeking the job include a long list of well-known figures. There are state legislators, a former congressman, company CEOs, a U.S. ambassador, decorated military veterans and radio commentators. A Democratic state senator has even applied.

But the process yielded hundreds of other names, some who applied on a lark and others who demanded to be seriously considered. They are everyday Georgians: teachers and technicians, doctors and data clerks, IT workers and investigators.

And in the final days, three contenders who are likely to receive serious consideration emerged. Robyn Crittenden, who runs the state’s largest agency, the Department of Human Services, and briefly succeeded Kemp as secretary of state, applied Thursday.

Hours later, Allen Poole, a former county commissioner whom Kemp tapped to lead the highway safety office, applied, saying the nation needs “bold, conservative leaders to stand with President (Donald) Trump.”

And Monday brought one of the biggest names yet: Kelly Loeffler, the head of a financial services firm who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA franchise and has long been interested in seeking public office. She seems certain to be a top-tier potential appointee to the seat.

Just as notable were the high-profile Republicans who decided not to apply. Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Attorney General Chris Carr, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel and U.S. Attorney BJay Pak all opted against submitting their resumes.

Another potential appointee who stayed on the sidelines was Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, who met with Kemp in October to express interest in applying for the job but decided against formally seeking it.

A growing shortlist

Kemp has said he launched the online process because he wanted to ensure he considers a range of Georgians for the high-profile position, though his advisers have likely had a small group of potential contenders in mind from the get-go.

There were few obstacles to applying, since the governor only asked for a resume, address and contact information on the governor office’s website — and no a cover letter, mission statement or detailed policies.

Many of the highest-profile candidates are at the center of intense lobbying campaigns behind the scenes, sparking rumors that fast spread throughout political circles that Kemp is nearing a decision about a certain candidate or shying away from another one.

His advisers say he hasn’t made up his mind, but most Republican handicappers quickly identified three top contenders: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville pastor and ardent Trump defender; state Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House; and Jackie Gingrich Cushman, an author and fiscal analyst who is the daughter of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

That apparent shortlist doubled in recent days with applications from Crittenden, Poole and Loeffler, who is seen by many Republican insiders as the most likely to be appointed by Kemp.

A Republican mega-donor, Loeffler can self-finance a Senate campaign that’s expected to shatter fundraising records. She could also potentially help the GOP appeal to suburban women who have fled the party, leading to close margins in last year’s gubernatorial race.

“From working on the family farm to creating jobs and opportunity in the business world, I have been blessed to live the American Dream,” she wrote in her application. “I am offering myself to serve hardworking Georgians as a political outsider in the United States Senate to protect that dream for everyone.”

Loeffler seriously considered a 2014 run for the open U.S. Senate seat eventually won by Republican David Perdue. A co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, she heads the Bakkt financial services firm, a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange, the behemoth financial trading platform run by her husband, Jeff Sprecher.

Like some other applicants, her stance on many of Georgia’s political debates is uncertain and she has no voting record on hot-button issues. Her degree of support for Trump is also unknown, but she pledged to back his agenda in a letter affixed to her application.

“If chosen, I will stand with President Trump, Senator David Perdue, and you to Keep America Great,” she wrote to Kemp. “Together, we will grow jobs, strengthen the border, shut down drug cartels and human traffickers, lower healthcare costs, and protect our national interests — at home and abroad.”

A running mate

Kemp’s pick faces a demanding electoral sprint, starting with a November 2020 race to fill the remaining two years of Isakson’s term, then a 2022 bid for a full six-year stint in office. That’s when Kemp will seek a second term, essentially giving the governor a chance to select his own running mate.

Weighing heavily on the minds of Kemp’s advisers is the chance of a nationally scrutinized election sandwiched between the two. Since the vote next year is a special election featuring multiple contenders from all parties on the same ballot, with no primaries to hash out a nominee, a January 2021 runoff is required if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Kemp’s appointee will also have to compete for attention with Perdue, who is also on the ballot next year in his bid for a second — and he says final — term in the U.S. Senate. A staunch Trump ally, he has urged Kemp to appoint someone who will broaden the party’s appeal while supporting the president.

State Democrats, meanwhile, are apparently waiting on Kemp’s pick to unveil their own party-approved candidate for the seat. Among the names most mentioned are state Sen. Jen Jordan, former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Still, that hasn’t stopped another candidate from plunging into the race: Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, announced his Senate campaign last month and recently hosted a high-dollar fundraiser with his father in Connecticut.

The state Democratic Party issued a statement that amounted to an eye-roll as the application process wound down. In a statement, party spokesman Alex Floyd said Kemp’s pick faces an uphill battle because Georgians are tired of “Republican allies for Washington special interests.”

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