New Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia participates in a re-enactment of her swearing-in Monday with her husband, Jeff Sprecher, center, and Vice President Mike Pence. Polls show many Georgians still have not formed an opinion about Loeffler, while she’s also drawing scrutiny over how her new duties in the Senate could have an impact on the business dealings of her husband, the chairman and chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin

Capitol Recap: Many wait to learn more about Georgia’s new U.S. senator

The day she was sworn into office, new Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler said she was looking forward to working on the four committees she has been assigned.

Others appear to be watching what she’ll do as part of one of those assignments: her service on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Her seat on the ag panel, The Wall Street Journal wrote, means Loeffler will help oversee one of the main federal agencies that regulate Intercontinental Exchange Inc., the financial trading firm also known as ICE that her husband, Jeff Sprecher, runs as chairman and chief executive.

“The committee oversees the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates markets for derivatives that trade on ICE exchanges,” the Journal wrote. “The committee also oversees agriculture, logging, forestry and nutrition programs.”

Loeffler has said she will recuse herself on a case-by-case basis.

Drawing a blank: A pair of recent polls show that to most Georgians, Loeffler is a question mark.

It’s even true within her own Republican Party.

Public Policy Polling surveyed GOP voters: It found that roughly 20% had a favorable opinion of Loeffler, balanced against 20% who had an unfavorable opinion of Gov. Brian Kemp’s choice to replace Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate. That left nearly 60% who said they didn’t know what to think.

The poll, a survey of 711 likely GOP voters on Dec. 12 and 13, also took a look at U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Gainesville Republican whom President Donald Trump was urging Kemp to pick for the job.

The results were more definitive. Nearly two-thirds of the Republican voters had a favorable opinion of Collins, against 6% who viewed him unfavorably.

Collins has made noises about possibly running against Loeffler in November to see who serves the final two years of Isakson’s term. But the congressman has yet to unveil a decision.

Just for kicks, though, PPP questioned its respondents about a Collins-Loeffler matchup. He bested her, 56% to 16%.

PPP also posed a question about a matchup between Loeffler and former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, who also has suggested that he could run for the seat. That was better news for the new senator. She led Broun, 27% to 14%. About 60% were unsure.

It was all hypothetical because the race won’t be a head-to-head matchup. The contest will be a special election, with all candidates from all parties appearing on the same ballot with no primary in advance to narrow the field. A 2017 special election in the 6th Congressional District drew 18 candidates.

In the second poll, Mason-Dixon asked 625 voters between Dec. 19 and 25 to weigh in on Kemp’s pick of Loeffler. Roughly one-third of voters approved of the appointment and about 29% disapproved. But the plurality, 36%, had no opinion. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Let’s talk. But please, no questions: As those polls demonstrated, Loeffler needs to get her name out there.

She has made a series of appearances across the state to meet Georgians, especially Republicans.

A recent stop on that tour was a visit with the Cobb County GOP for its monthly breakfast. It was a sold-out event, which means it required tickets and presumably screened out dissidents.

Loeffler spoke for about five minutes, according to The Marietta Daily Journal. She, however, did not take any questions from the audience.

A pair, but more likely coming: Two Democrats now plan to challenge Loeffler.

Matt Lieberman, an educator and entrepreneur who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, entered the race months ago.

He has now been joined by Richard Dien Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia who ran an unsuccessful race for a U.S. House seat in 2018. Winfield apparently has an affinity for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Neither Lieberman nor Winfield is apparently the high-profile contender Democratic leaders in the state hope to back in the race.

A big problem. But how big? Kemp has made a crackdown on gangs one of his priorities for the legislative session that begins Monday.

Before doing anything else, it would be wise to determine the size of the problem.

In an op-ed for The Rome News-Tribune, Kemp set Georgia’s gang population at about 71,000, making gangland slightly larger than Alpharetta.

The number, however, is the source of some dispute.

The FBI quit estimating gang size back in 2011, when it put the number of gangbangers in Georgia in the range of 19,000 to 39,000, so somewhere between the current populations of Snellville and Milton.

In 2018, the Georgia Gang Investigators Association took on the job of counting the state’s ne’er-do-wells, and it came up with 71,000 that Kemp used. So if you trust the FBI’s high number and the GGIA figure, Georgia gangs nearly doubled during the heady days of the Nathan Deal administration.

If it makes you feel better, the GGIA says nearly 40% of the gangsters it tallied are currently wearing the colors of an orange prison jumpsuit.

Will a majority back it? A conservative group is seeking a change in Georgia election law that would eliminate the need for runoffs that occur so often when more than two candidates appear on a ballot.

State law currently requires a runoff between the two top finishers, in general elections and primaries, when no candidates receives a majority of the vote. The most recent high-profile case would be 2018’s GOP runoff for governor when Casey Cagle finished first in the opening round of voting but failed to draw more than half the votes cast. That opened the door for Kemp, who won the runoff and then the general election against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The idea being pushed by the Take Back Action Fund would allow for an “instant runoff,” which would require voters to rank their choices of candidates — first choice, second choice, etc. — making a second round of voting unnecessary. The group thinks its proposal could drive up turnout, reduce election costs and lessen the “spoiler effect” of a third-party candidate forcing overtime.

Republicans have generally been reluctant to make such a change to the state’s election laws. Their voters tend to be older and more reliable, meaning they will turn out for runoffs.

But an influential state House Republican is apparently taking a hard look at the proposal, and legislation could be filed during the General Assembly session that begins Monday.

Still, it could be difficult to pass such a measure during an election year.

Making her case in writing: Following her loss in 2018, Abrams has focused much of her attention on voting rights. In June, she has a book coming out on the subject, “Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America.”

“The future of our democracy depends on correcting all that is wrong with our elections process, including the insidious practice of voter suppression,” Abrams said in a statement.

Henry Holt & Co. is publishing the book, which will be released just before this year’s Democratic National Convention, where Abrams could also play a significant role. Her name has appeared often on shortlists of potential Democratic candidates for vice president.

More, more money: Democrat Dana Barrett reports raising more than $90,000 since October, when she entered the race for Georgia’s 11th Congressional District.

That would seem like a lot of money. But her opponent, U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, took in about $250,000 over the first nine months of 2019. He still hasn’t reported how much was added in the pot for the final quarter.

There’s money. Then there’s debt: The subject of campaign money also came up in a tweet by Dave Levinthal, editor-at-large for the Center for Public Integrity.

“What former presidential candidate’s campaign still owes creditors more than $4.63 million — more than any other presidential campaign?” Levinthal asked.

He quickly gave up the answer: “Newt 2012 — @newtgingrich’s old campaign.”

At least Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman and onetime U.S. House speaker, can say he won the state’s GOP primary that year. And South Carolina, too.

Speaker in the House: U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, speaks frequently on the floor of the U.S. House, and C-SPAN has taken notice.

The public affairs network reports that Carter spoke on the House floor on 73 different days, putting him in third place among all 435 members of the House.

No other Georgian made the top 10 in either the House or the Senate.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

State Rep. Calvin Smyre is seeking re-election. He should know the campaign ropes by now: This would be the Columbus Democrat’s 23rd term in the House.

State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, picked up a pair of big-name endorsements in her run for Congress. Former Gov. Roy Barnes and ex-U.S. Sen. Max Cleland have both thrown their support behind Karinshak in the 7th Congressional District race. Both Barnes and Cleland had been backers of one of Karinshak’s rivals in the Democratic primary, Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost a tight race in 2018 to U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

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