As Kelly Loeffler prepares to be sworn in as Georgia’s next U.S. senator, many of the grassroots activists who form the backbone of the state’s Republican Party remain reluctant to give her a full-fledged endorsement.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of dozens of local party officials and county GOP chairmen showed many are taking a wait-and-see approach to Loeffler, a financial executive Gov. Brian Kemp selected for the job who is largely unknown to even many top Republicans.
Their hesitance will play a major factor as the political newcomer faces a steep task. Her new role will require her to almost instantly take part in impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, even as she tries to establish her political brand and fend off conservative challengers.
Among those potential challengers is U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who has said he’s “strongly” considering a run against Loeffler in November’s special election to fill the final two years of retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Trump privately lobbied Kemp to tap Collins, and the governor’s decision to appoint Loeffler instead is a calculated risk he took hoping to expand the GOP’s appeal.
Kemp’s support — and Loeffler’s promise to spend at least $20 million on her campaign — may scare off Collins or other potential Republican rivals. But Loeffler will still have to win over conservative activists whose support could shape her 2020 chances.
Count Bruce Fykes among the uncommitted.
“I have full confidence in Governor Kemp, but because of what I have read — and all of it may not be true — I have some concern,” said Fykes, the chairman of the Pulaski County GOP. “But I am willing to give her a chance to prove her conservatism.”
That’s a reference to the stinging pushback that mounted in the days before Loeffler was appointed, when anti-abortion activists painted her as a supporter of abortion rights and conservatives tried to cast her as a closet moderate by pointing to a record of contributions to Democratic candidates.
Loeffler tried to put those concerns to rest with a debut that emphasized her support for Trump and her opposition to abortion rights. She called herself “pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump.”
She’s waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to curry support by handing out her cellphone number to activists and elected officials, texting links to confidential surveys to grassroots organizers seeking their input and meeting privately with influential GOP leaders.
“People will learn I am a lifelong conservative,” she told the AJC in describing her outreach efforts. “They’re going to see my values that came from being raised on the farm, the importance of faith and family, and carrying out the president’s agenda and supporting Governor Kemp.”
The behind-the-scenes blitz is working with some. Cindy Morley of Douglas County’s GOP said she’s “excited” about Loeffler’s appointment, drawing a comparison to another business executive who was little known in Republican politics before he ran for office.
“David Perdue was a newcomer to politics and an outsider, but look at the great job he has done as Georgia’s senator,” said Morley, although Perdue also could rely on his first cousin Sonny Perdue’s political legacy and extensive network.
“I supported Brian Kemp for governor early on because I felt he was the best person to lead Georgia. I still do,” Morley said. “We elected him to make the best decisions for this state, and I trust his judgment.”
And Johnny Vines, the head of the Candler County GOP, said he senses the “initial apprehension” to Loeffler could melt away.
“Kelly Loeffler’s statement at her first press conference alleviated most concerns as far as I’m hearing,” he said. “We are now praying for her success as we know it affects us, our state and our nation.”
‘I hope she has it’
Others are skeptical. Tea party organizers have openly vouched for Collins, as have TV personalities such as Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity. That’s trickled down to some of the volunteers who man phone banks, crowd monthly breakfasts and hand out pamphlets door to door.
Steven Strickland, a veteran Oconee County GOP activist, said he respects Kemp and trusts that he made the right decision. But that doesn’t mean he’ll automatically support Loeffler.
“I will reserve judgment on Kelly Loeffler until closer to the 2020 special election, as I believe it’s important to evaluate her body of work in the U.S. Senate,” Strickland said, adding that he wants to see her “engage face to face with Republican voters in Oconee County” before judging her viability.
He was echoed by Reid Derr, who is president of the local GOP chapter in South Georgia’s Bulloch County. He said the “base is skeptical of a political newcomer and wants a strong conservative.”
Loeffler has much work to do even with the state GOP’s upper tiers. Though she was surrounded by politicians during her formal introduction at Kemp’s office earlier this month, several of those officials abstained from endorsing her.
She recently joined Kemp at the annual Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry game in Atlanta, meeting lawmakers and university officials. And she’s reached out to Republican leaders for advice. That includes former Gov. Nathan Deal, who said Loeffler called him a few days ago.
Deal told the AJC he only “knew her from a distance.” But he said she seemed willing to devote herself to building the connections with voters and activists that she’ll likely need to wage a formidable campaign in 2020 and, if she wins, to run for a full six-year term in 2022.
“That’s what it’s going to take for anybody who tries to run for anything these days, especially statewide,” said Deal, who served two terms as governor.
“Georgia is indeed a big state, geographically, and a diverse state in terms of the politics that prevail,” he said. “So having someone who can at least overcome the regional differences in our state and still be successful takes a lot of skill. I hope she has it.”
The jury is still out, too, for Jason Shepherd, the Cobb GOP chairman who was one of more than 500 people who applied for the Senate seat. He said he’s both encouraged and cautious about Loeffler’s selection, urging anxious volunteers at the chapter’s regular meetings to “keep an open mind” until they learn more about her.
“I had my favorite picks, too, but we elected the governor to make the hard decisions,” he said, adding that he’s invited Loeffler to speak at the group’s January breakfast.
“I think she will be key to wooing back suburban voters in 2020 and making sure Cobb continues to be the county with the most Republican votes in Georgia.”
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Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.