Kelly Loeffler, who is set to become Georgia’s next U.S. senator in January, has reached out to grassroots activists and Republican officials at the local level in an effort to convince them that she is a conservative. In the days leading up to her appointment to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Loeffler faced accusations from anti-abortion advocates and conservatives who tried to cast her as a closet moderate. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Loeffler reaches out to skeptical Georgia GOP activists

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.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, with First Lady Marty Kemp, Kelly Loeffler and husband Jeff Sprecher at the Georgia 4-H gala in August. On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp formally announced Loeffler as his selection to succeed Johnny Isakson as U.S. senator. SPECIAL to the AJC from Blane Marable Photography and Georgia 4-H
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.”

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson speaks to the crowd at the reception for the newly completed first phase of construction of Walton High School in Marietta, GA Sunday, July 30, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) (L), testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during a hearing on Capitol Hill October 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Johnny Isakson, President of Northside Realty (Joe McTyre/AJC staff) 1995

U. S. Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) meets constituents and business people under the watchful eye of a picture of his father, Ed Isakson, at the Ed Isakson Alpharetta Family YMCA (it was named for his father) 2/5/01. (PHOTO: DAVID TULIS/AJC)

Johnny Isakson makes a point during his announcement to run for Sam Nunn's seat in the U.S. Senate. Accompanying Isakson at his announcement were son Kevin (left), wife Diane and (not pictured) son John. (AJC photo/John Spink)

US Rep. Johnny Isakson visiting the Atlanta Kiwanas Club meeting on Tuesday, December 8, 2003 at the R. Charles Loudermilk Sr. Center for the Regional Community in Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK/AJC staff)

GOP U.S. Senate candidate Johnny Isakson (cq) walks past supporters after greeting them as he speaks to the media at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead Tuesday evening 7/20/2004. (BITA HONARVAR/STAFF)

Johnny Isakson and Georgia Governor Zell Miller at a press conference announcing the appointment of Johnny Isakson to be the Chairman of the State Board of Education on December 11, 1996. (AJC Staff Photo/Rich Addicks)

Sen. Johnny Isakson questions Kelly Craft, President Trump's nominee to be Representative to the United Nations, during her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 19, 2019 (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) speaks during the Election Night event for Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp at the Classic Center on November 6, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) (R) meets with Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his office on Capitol Hill July 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) passes through the basement of the U.S. Capitol prior to a Senate Republican Policy Luncheon January 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is seen at the Capitol September 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks to the crowd in support of Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue at the InterContinental Buckhead November 4, 2014 in Atlanta. (Photo by Jason Getz/Getty Images)

Rep. Timothy Walz, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Sen. John McCain and Johnny Isakson attend a ceremony in the Rayburn Room at the Capitol Feb. 10, 2015 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(L-R) Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue campaign at the McDonough Square on October 24, 2014 in McDonough. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson attends NBC News Education Nation Job One Panel Discussion at Georgia Aquarium on May 7, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images for NBCUniversal)

(L-R) David Gregory, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed attend Education Nation Job One Panel Discussion at Georgia Aquarium on May 7, 2012 (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images for NBCUniversal)

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson and Spelman College President Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum attend Education Nation Job One Panel Discussion at Georgia Aquarium on May 7, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images for NBCUniversal)

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill August 4, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) speaks to a crowd of current and retired Delta Airlines employees gathered on Capitol Hill to protest the potential takeover of their company on January 23, 2007 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jamie Rose/Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) (L) poses for photographers with his wife Dianne and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (R) during the reenactment of a swearing-in ceremony January 4, 2005. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Representative Johnny Isakson, (R-GA) speaks in support of the public display of the Ten Commandments during the Spirit of Montgomery-Save the Commandments Caravan at the state Capitol September 29, 2003 (Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. 2019 Getty Images 2018 Getty Images 2018 Getty Images 2018 Getty Images 2016 Getty Images 2014 Getty Images 2015 Getty Images 2014 Getty Images 2012 Getty Images Photo: Moses Robinson/Getty Images 2010 Getty Images 2007 Getty Images 2005 Getty Images 2003 Getty Images

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.