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Kemp’s big gamble to expand the Georgia GOP

12/04/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Newly appointed U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (center) reacts as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) speaks during a press conference in his office at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate to take the place of U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
12/04/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Newly appointed U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (center) reacts as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) speaks during a press conference in his office at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate to take the place of U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment of Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate might be his biggest gamble in a political career full of them, potentially forcing Georgia Republicans to draw battle lines at a perilous moment.

The governor picked Loeffler from a crowd of more than 500 applicants to make her the second female U.S. senator in state history, betting that the deep-pocketed financial executive could help the party broaden its appeal.

His decision directly defied President Donald Trump and other conservative leaders who had loudly appealed for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman and outspoken opponent of impeachment who has threatened a Senate run anyway.

Her introduction was intended to rebut conservatives who spent the past few weeks painting her as a closet liberal. But she has much work ahead to win over skeptics who see her as an unproven candidate at the worst possible time. And some of her critics have hardly relented.

Republican officials and analysts worry the party cannot withstand a rift that could erupt if Collins or another well-known conservative mounts a campaign, especially with energized Democrats eager to flip both U.S. Senate seats up for grabs next year.

“The Republican Party in the state of Georgia has to become unified,” said Shelley Wynter, a conservative commentator. “I don’t think there’s going to be an irrevocable divide, but there’s going to be a split until she proves herself. And it can be dangerous if the split grows — and opens a door for Democrats to walk right in.”

The signs of friction are hard to ignore.

Kemp’s staff worked furiously to present a sense of unity at Loeffler’s unveiling. Many of the state’s top elected officials stood beside the governor. Others issued strong statements of support.

But some Republican officials were more circumspect about her appointment to succeed Johnny Isakson, a three-term senator stepping down because of health issues.

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, said through a spokesman that he’s looking forward to “learning more about her and her positions.” Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said he was “impressed with her speech and encouraged by her remarks” but did not offer an endorsement.

And state House Speaker David Ralston, who stood beside Kemp, said simply that the governor has “chosen the person he believes is most qualified to represent our values in Washington” and that he looks forward to getting to know her.

Even Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, one of Kemp’s staunchest political allies, was lukewarm in his assessment of Loeffler. He congratulated her — and devoted the rest of his statement to applauding Isakson’s record of service.

‘Proud of it’

Kemp is accustomed to the second-guessing. Frustrated at local zoning rules, he ran for state Senate in 2002 against an entrenched Democratic establishment in his deep-blue hometown of Athens — and won an upset victory.

He ran an underdog campaign last year for governor against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who soaked up most of the big-money contributions and many high-profile endorsements only to be undone in a GOP primary runoff by Kemp's grassroots base and Trump's endorsement.

And during a polarizing general election campaign against Democrat Stacey Abrams, he took a calculated risk that he would attract more voters than spurn by refusing demands that he resign his post as the state's top elections official as he pursued the governor's office.

One year into his first term, Kemp sees more than 2020 at stake with his pick. If Loeffler wins, she would also be on the ticket with Kemp in 2022 when he stands for re-election and could face Abrams in a rematch.

With Loeffler, he is attempting to stamp his own brand on a Georgia GOP that has struggled with metro Atlanta women. Few understand that gap more than he does: Abrams walloped him in the suburbs, and exit polls showed a double-digit gender gap.

Loeffler was aware of that deficit, too. She presented herself as a traditional “pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump” conservative, but also as a newcomer who can make fresh appeals to women in a state GOP dominated by white, male elected officials.

“No one will fight harder for our state, our president and our conservative values,” she said. “Because here’s the thing: Contrary to what you see in the media, not every strong woman in America is a liberal. Many of us are conservatives. And proud of it.”

‘Mockery’

Given that word had leaked out last month, Loeffler’s unveiling was expected, as was one of the reasons Kemp gave her the appointment – her ability to self-fund what’s likely to be a very expensive campaign. Even so, observers were surprised by the amount her advisors immediately said she was willing to spend to keep her seat: $20 million.

Such a staggering injection would not only take the pressure off her to raise cash but could also serve as a bulwark to fend off a challenge from Collins or other Republicans weighing a run.

There was a downside, too, giving critics a fresh opening to present her as out of touch.

Democrats have seized on that theme, saying Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a wealthy former Fortune 500 executive also on next year’s ballot, couldn’t possibly relate to the concerns of everyday Georgians.

“Kelly Loeffler wasted no time proving that she is more than willing to try to buy her Senate seat outright rather than working to win the trust and support of Georgians,” said Alex Floyd of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

It's not yet known whether the massive bankroll will ward off Collins, who said in a statement that he's focused on the latest phase of impeachment hearings, which have shifted to the House Judiciary Committee, where he serves in a starring role.

That pushback over Loeffler has continued: She's never run for public office before, is a mystery to even many Georgia politicos and under attack by prominent conservatives who question her support for Trump and her past contributions to Democrats and her commitment to GOP causes.

Fox News personality Sean Hannity called Loeffler a RINO — Republican in name only — and a "big mistake." Closer to home, Atlanta-based tea party activist Jenny Beth Martin said Loeffler's promotion makes a "mockery of those who cast votes" for Trump.

Kemp’s allies have pleaded for patience. Heath Garrett, a veteran Republican strategist and a top Isakson deputy, said Loeffler must quickly connect with conservatives who see her as an unknown.

“Kelly has the opportunity to unite the party at a tense time. She needs to be herself, get a great Senate staff and call or meet with as many grassroots activists as possible,” he said. “When people meet and get to know Kelly, they will like her.”

For others, the jury is still out. Former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun had been the choice for the post by the ultra-conservative Georgia Republican Assembly. He said in an email that Georgians should give Kemp the “benefit of the doubt” — to a degree.

“We should watch the voting record of Senator Loeffler and only then make our assessment,” he said. “Of course, I’m disappointed that I was not picked — but we must trust our governor as well as the Lord and His sovereignty.”

Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to the report.