Gov. Brian Kemp’s advisers and supporters have launched a forceful defense of financial executive Kelly Loeffler days before he’s expected to name her to a U.S. Senate seat, countering weeks of criticism from some conservatives eager to paint his pick as too moderate for the position.
Several of Kemp’s top allies have endorsed Loeffler, a political newcomer who would face a gantlet of elections if the governor appoints her at an announcement planned for Wednesday. National Republicans have also signaled their support. And Kemp’s aides have gone on the offensive against out-of-state critics.
It’s all part of a coordinated effort to shore up support for Loeffler amid mounting conservative backlash from allies of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman who has threatened to run after it became clear he wasn’t the governor’s choice.
That run seems more likely after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported last week that Kemp plans to appoint Loeffler to the seat despite President Donald Trump's endorsement of Collins, a Gainesville attorney and chaplain who is one of his top advocates in Congress.
Kemp and his advisers spent the last stretch putting the finishing touches on his pick’s rollout during an announcement set for 10 a.m. Wednesday. He’s eager to trumpet a prominent executive who can self-finance her campaign and, he’ll contend, help the Georgia GOP win back suburban voters.
The announcement would come a day after U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson delivers a farewell speech on the Senate floor. Isakson, who is stepping down at year’s end because of health issues, recently had breakfast with Kemp and repeated his pledge to support the governor’s selection.
Loeffler also started introducing herself to her soon-to-be colleagues, including a conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The National Republican Senatorial Committee told her she’d be treated as an incumbent with the group’s full support, which could help defend her new post.
Democrats are hoping for a nasty internal conflict across the aisle. Stewart Boss of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Kemp’s decision-making process proves why Republicans won’t win in 2020.
“This broken appointment process has turned into a corrupt coronation for a donor who’s given millions of dollars to politicians from both parties and is now trying to buy a Senate seat,” he said. “It’s everything Georgians hate about Washington and why they’ll reject Kelly Loeffler in 2020.”
The first-time candidate might need all the support she could get for a 2020 election to fill the remaining two years on Isakson’s term and the possibilities of a 2021 runoff and a 2022 vote for a full six-year term.
Collins told the AJC two weeks ago that he's "strongly" considering a run for the seat if he's not appointed. Trump has directly pressed Kemp to appoint Collins at least three times, including during a secretive meeting last week in Washington that involved Loeffler.
And Loeffler has been targeted by conservative activists who have scrutinized her degree of support for Trump, questioned her past campaign contributions to Democrats and tried to depict her as a closet liberal.
Fox News personality Sean Hannity urged his listeners Monday to clog Kemp's phone lines with angry calls, and Mark Levin, another commentator and Trump ally, called Kemp "another (Mitt) Romney" who is "about to appoint a RINO to the Senate. His surrogates are trashing conservative critics like Gaetz."
He’s referring to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a key Trump ally who called for the Georgia governor to be challenged in 2022 and questioned whether he could win re-election after the AJC’s report Friday about Loeffler’s expected appointment.
"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 Friday, later mentioning how Loeffler donated to Romney's 2012 presidential bid but did not give to Trump in 2016.
"You are ignoring his request because you THINK you know better than @POTUS," Gaetz added. "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."
The governor’s aides responded with a vigor that evoked memories of the 2018 campaign.
They called him an "acid-washed jean shorts" wearing Floridian with "Stacey Abrams syndrome," described him as an "oddly submissive" outsider telling Georgians what to do and a "cowardly" interloper who stuffs Pokémon cards in his pockets.
It took even veteran political operatives by surprise. Brian Robinson, a former top deputy to Gov. Nathan Deal versed in the art of razor-sharp barbs, drew a 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.
The out-of-state umbrage might be just fine for Kemp and his aides.
They'd much rather mock non-Georgians than knock the in-state activists who are critical of his decision — a list that includes Tanya Ditty of the Concerned Women for America's state chapter and tea party organizer Jenny Beth Martin.
It's a convenient way to shift the narrative away from one that frames Kemp as someone willing to ignore Trump's personal pleas and toward a view that casts the governor as defiantly standing against what is now the party's establishment.
And Kemp, for his part, said it was "ridiculous" to assume he'd appoint anyone who was not supportive of Trump, an advocate for gun rights and an opponent of abortion.
Others have echoed him. Former state lawmaker Buzz Brockway and Cole Muzio of the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia have been outspoken in their pleas for faith in Kemp’s decisions.
And Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, who applied for the seat, praised the governor’s tactical decision in planning to pick a woman and business executive.
He said Loeffler “helps Republicans win back suburban women who seem to have left our party in the last cycle” before adding: “The governor knows what he’s doing.”
Sensing a coming rift, other state Republican groups have also chimed in. The board of the Georgia Young Republicans also voted unanimously to back Kemp in whoever he picks, nodding to the acrimony already dividing some Georgia conservatives.
“Unity sometimes means swallowing pride and ambition and doing what is best for the party,” said Andrew Abbott, a spokesman for the group.
“Let’s be honest here,” former Republican state Rep. John Pezold added. “If Trump said Representative Jody Hice was his favorite and Governor Kemp was thinking Doug Collins, people would be threatening primaries if Collins was the choice.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC