Gov. Brian Kemp took a calculated risk in appointing Atlanta businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, for next year, giving her an incumbent’s advantage for the November 2020 election to the remaining two years of the senator’s term. Kemp’s decision aims at shoring up support for Republicans who were trounced in the suburbs by Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial election. At the same time, Kemp wants to hold the GOP base statewide in a political balancing act.
Kemp went against the wishes of President Donald Trump who had pushed the governor to pick U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, a close ally of the president and one of his most ardent defenders against the House impeachment proceedings. Likewise, some of Kemp’s conservative supporters in Georgia had urged him to appoint Collins. To meet this opposition, the governor lined up a bevy of elected state officials to join him when he announced his decision, presenting Loeffler as a “conservative businesswoman and political outsider.” She responded by hitting the right notes for the Republican base. She said many women are conservatives and proudly so.
“I’m a lifelong conservative,” she said. “Pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump. I make no apologies for my conservative values, and will proudly support President Trump’s conservative judges.” She said she is “angered by the impeachment circus,” adding: “I strongly oppose it and believe it is a sideshow and a distraction.” Underscoring her conservative views, she announced support for legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks, saying “abortion on demand is immoral.” And she added, “When it comes to protecting innocent life, I look to God because every life is a blessing.”
Loeffler, 49, will have plenty of her own funds to finance her November 2020 campaign for election to the Senate in her own right. A multimillionaire, she is CEO of Bakkt, a financial services firm providing a regulated market for Bitcoin. She formed the company last year after resigning as a senior executive at Intercontinental Exchange headed by her husband, Jeff Sprecher. Intercontinental is the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Kelly Loeffler is also co-owner of the Atlanta Dream franchise of the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Despite the opposition within the GOP ranks, Georgia’s Republican power structure presented a virtually united front in support of Loeffler after Kemp announced her appointment. Sen. Isakson said her “business experience and acumen will be an asset to Georgia and the Senate.” He predicted her “tireless work ethic that has helped her succeed in business will also help her succeed in serving Georgians and our nation.” Sen. David Perdue said he looks forward to working with Loeffler, “my new partner in the U.S. Senate.” Perdue can identify with Loeffler since he won his Senate seat as an outsider and a business executive, and is running for an endorsement term in the 2020 election.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, welcomed Loeffler’s appointment, citing her “impressive record in business and community leadership.” He said she “will have my full support for reelection in 2020 as a Republican incumbent.” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Todd Young of Indiana gave a ringing endorsement, saying Kemp “made a phenomenal pick” by appointing Loeffler, “the principled conservative leader that Georgians can count on to run alongside the president and Senator David Perdue to victory in November.”
The array of elected officials backing Loeffler no doubt reduces the chances that Rep. Collins will run in the Nov. 3, 2020, special nonpartisan “jungle” election open to Democrats, Republicans and others for the last two years of Isakson’s term ending in 2023. Collins had indicated he might run if he was not appointed by Kemp but that may be less likely now. To win a majority or a runoff spot, Republicans need to unite behind a candidate, same as Democrats are expected to coalesce behind their preference. The state Democratic Party hierarchy has not endorsed Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and the first Democrat candidate to enter the fray.
How will the choice of Loeffler play in the suburbs? Her avowed strong conservative views may hold the Republican base but will she broaden the GOP appeal to women and moderates? Will her pro-Trump stance turn off these voters? Gov. Kemp took a calculated risk in naming Loeffler, hoping she will be the key to winning back the suburbs and expanding the Republican base. It’s up to her to convince a majority of voters that she is right for the job as a wealthy political newcomer and outsider.
Kelly Loeffler is virtually unknown in Georgia politics, and as she put it, “I know I have a lot of work to do to earn the trust and support of my fellow Georgians.” She has the next 11 months to do just that and become the first woman to win election to the U.S. Senate from Georgia.