Gov. Brian Kemp and his choice to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Kelly Loeffler. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Inside how Kemp picked Loeffler for the U.S. Senate

About three months ago, Kelly Loeffler introduced a team of sports executives to a crowd of politicians and corporate types at SunTrust Park. Within minutes, hardly a soul in the room was listening.

Just about every face was affixed to a smartphone and breaking news that was about to upend Georgia politics: U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson had just announced he was stepping down at year’s end, giving Gov. Brian Kemp a chance to appoint his replacement.

No one knew then that Loeffler would be Kemp’s pick. Not Loeffler, a deep-pocketed marketing whiz who only applied for the job hours before a deadline, and not Kemp, who found out about Isakson’s decision shortly before the public did.

But the governor’s decision will not only define his first year in office but also the immediate future of the Georgia GOP.

By picking Loeffler, Kemp is wagering that a finance executive who has never run for office before can survive a string of elections. Those trials start with a November 2020 race to fill Isakson’s remaining two years, and there will also be a 2022 vote for a full term. A January 2021 runoff could be sandwiched in between.

The fallout of the governor’s decision is still in flux, but this much is certain: For the first time since Kemp won election, he has rebuffed President Donald Trump on a major issue, defying his personal appeals for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman and outspoken opponent of impeachment.

To get to this point, there were enough twists to fill a novella. Private maneuvering, secret meetings, intense pressure from Trump and his allies, and an application process teeming with well-known politicians unspooled in the public eye.

It’s a drama that’s still being written. Grassroots conservatives upset with the selection of Loeffler tried — and failed — to persuade Kemp to go with Collins. And Collins said he’s “strongly” considering a run for the Senate anyways, raising the prospect of a bitter Republican fight on the 2020 ballot.

‘A joke?’

The email to Kemp’s top advisers landed like a thunderbolt just before 10 a.m. on Aug. 28: “Johnny is telling Governor Kemp now that we are announcing today that Johnny will resign his Senate seat.”

The public announcement came less than an hour later, stunning the political world while also setting up a second U.S. Senate election in Georgia to go along with U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s quest for re-election.

November 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson speaks as GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp looks Monday evening just a day before the election day at Brian Kemp for Governor Headquarters in Buckhead on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp’s initial reaction was to sidestep talk of the open seat — he was consumed with preparations for Hurricane Dorian — but once the tropical cyclone passed he turned his attention to the political storm brewing.

Rather than release a list of finalists, he wound up taking a novel route: an online portal that invited applications from anyone who met constitutional requirements to serve in the U.S. Senate. He settled on the process, in part, because he didn’t start with a conceived shortlist of candidates.

Soon, the office was flooded with resumes. Some were big names. Former U.S. Health Secretary Tom Price. Ex-U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston. U.S. Ambassador Randy Evans, a well-known GOP lawyer. State Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House.

Others, not so much. Some sent detailed transcripts and medical histories — one applicant noted he was free of sexually transmitted diseases — while others kept it simple. Pranksters sent in phony applications — one purported to be Hillary Clinton — and others raised their hand on a lark.

“The whole thing is a joke and I just wanted to see what would happen,” said Matthew Borenstein, a digital strategist who turned in a one-page resume soon after the portal went live. “I mean, who puts up a job posting for U.S. senator?”

That would be Kemp, who defended the process as an innovative way for his team to consider unconventional candidates. And among the hundreds of applicants, many came from regular folks who thought they should get a close look despite the infinitesimally small odds.

“I can’t yell at my TV anymore. I have no other choice,” Hal Shouse, a hog killer from South Georgia, said of his decision to apply for Isakson’s job.

Tight lid

Almost no one — not state Republicans, White House officials or even some Kemp aides — thought the process would take three months. It led to criticism from some Republican officials that Kemp unknowingly created a vacuum that allowed conservative critics to fill the void.

But the governor’s allies say fierce opposition to whoever he appointed would have surfaced either way. And Kemp and his advisers credit the online “help wanted” sign with allowing everyday Georgians to throw their names in the hat, along with other contenders they might not have otherwise considered.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, delivers his opening statement as committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York listens during the panel’s first hearing in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. Testifying on Wednesday were constitutional scholars Noah Feldman of Harvard University, Pamela Karlan of Stanford University, Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Among them were two Kemp administration officials, Robyn Crittenden and Allen Poole, who surprised GOP insiders by expressing interest in the job. They quickly landed on Kemp’s internal shortlist.

Other candidates were nervous about being too forceful, getting word that Kemp didn’t want to feel pressured. A New York Times story announcing Collins’ interest in the campaign, which came days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named him as a likely applicant, miffed the governor’s advisers.

The governor also tried to keep a tight lid on any discussions he had with potential candidates, one reason he was said to be irritated by an AJC report about his discussion with Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton about his interest in the seat.

Loeffler, who had floated a 2014 run for a U.S. Senate seat, reached out to the governor after she heard about Isakson’s retirement.

It’s not known how many times they met, but the two were said to bond over shared rural roots, business backgrounds and their involvement in 4-H Club. But her interest wouldn’t emerge for days, kept under a tight lid.

She also made another promise to Kemp: That she would funnel $20 million of her own cash into the campaign, a substantial injection meant to ward off challengers from both parties. 

The ‘conscience’ vs. the ‘outsider’

The deadline to apply neared as a big moment in state politics arrived: Trump was headed to Georgia to unveil a new campaign initiative. And Collins was on Air Force One at his side.

Collins’ allies came armed with something else, too. A poll of GOP primary voters that McLaughlin & Associates conducted in August presented the congressman as the “most well known and most well liked” of the potential Republican candidates tested.

“Besides being the conscience of the House on the Judiciary Committee, Doug’s experience and background would further excite the majority of Georgia voters,” the Nov. 8 memo read.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump at Dobbins Air Force Base on Nov. 8, 2019, in Marietta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As they rode in the presidential limo, Trump delivered a blunt message to Kemp: He liked Collins and urged the governor to make him a U.S. senator. Kemp told him he hadn’t made up his mind yet but promised to keep in touch.

As a deadline for applications approached, the GOP world was awash with talk. None of it centered on Loeffler.

Instead, there was a full-fledged “stop Melton” movement among some elected officials concerned the chief justice wasn’t ready for intense campaigning.

That changed on Nov. 18, when the first wave of Democratic presidential candidates scattered across metro Atlanta ahead of their debate at Tyler Perry Studios — and Republicans were intently focused on a 5 p.m. deadline for the applications.

Melton didn’t apply. Loeffler did, submitting a resume that read like it was honed by Kemp advisers. It mentioned “hardworking Georgians” — one of the governor’s favorite phrases — and presented her as a “political outsider” who will fight politicians with “radical agendas.”

Collins’ camp, meanwhile, was growing frustrated. He and his advisers hadn’t heard from Kemp or his advisers in weeks, and their efforts to force his hand were falling flat. Two days after the deadline, Collins was asked whether he would run even if he wasn’t appointed. His answer was straightforward.

“In recent days and weeks, I’ve heard from more and more Georgians encouraging me to pursue statewide service,” he said on Nov. 20. “Those Georgians deserve to have me consider their voices — so I am, strongly.”

‘Absolutely absurd’

Soon, there was a full-on campaign for Collins. Trump peeled away from impeachment proceedings to call Kemp and lobby for the congressman. Collins’ allies slammed Loeffler, and conservative outlets that once praised Kemp’s every decision ran scathing stories about his potential pick.

As Thanksgiving approached, Collins’ aides lost hope of changing Kemp’s mind. And the governor’s aides worried that a few pre-emptive keystrokes from the president could scuttle Loeffler’s chances. Kemp still wanted to try to win over Trump.

He planned a secretive trip to Washington on Nov. 24 so Kemp and Loeffler could huddle with the president in person. The go-between was Nick Ayers, a Georgia operative with close ties to Trump.

It didn’t go as expected for the governor. The president was described as agitated by the meeting and frustrated that Kemp didn’t go with Collins or another tried-and-true political veteran who could defend him in the U.S. Senate.

Kemp, though, returned to Georgia seemingly more determined to name Loeffler to the seat. As conservative pushback grew — and a range of anti-abortion activists questioned Loeffler’s position — the governor tried to sideline the criticism.

“The attacks and games are absolutely absurd,” he vented in a tweet. “Frankly, I could care less what the political establishment thinks.”

The back-and-forth would only escalate. A Florida congressman called for Kemp to face a primary challenge, pointing to her contributions to Democratic candidates. Sean Hannity urged his listeners to call the governor’s office to vent their frustration. Trump die-hards begged Kemp to change his mind.

And Kemp’s backers responded with a display of force reminiscent of the 2018 campaign, bashing out-of-state interlopers for trying to pressure the governor into a decision he didn’t want to make. Soon, more elected officials and conservatives joined his side, advocating openly for Loeffler.

Many of them accompanied Kemp on Wednesday when he revealed Loeffler was his pick, proclaiming her to be a “lifelong Republican who shares our conservative values.”

There was another, quieter gathering that could also prove consequential. A few days before Loeffler’s rollout, Kemp finally met with Collins at the annual grudge match between Georgia and Georgia Tech. The two shook hands that Saturday at Tech’s stadium and, a few hours later, connected by phone.

In that conversation, the governor made no apologies about passing over Collins. And the congressman refused to rule out a Senate run of his own.

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