In a fascinating turn of events, businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, who heads the firm that co-owns the Atlanta Hawks pro basketball team, has applied for appointment to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is retiring at year end because of declining health. Loeffler stepped into the arena last week on the deadline date set by Gov. Brian Kemp for applications to fill Isakson’s seat next year. A special nonpartisan “jungle” election on Nov. 3, 2020, will decide who serves the remaining two years of Isakson’s term.

Loeffler’s surprise move shook up the competition for the appointment. She is one of the most high-profile applicants on Kemp’s list of more than 500 people seeking the interim appointment, boasting an impressive resume. In addition to her executive role with the Atlanta Hawks, she is co-owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s pro basketball team, the first Georgia professional sports team owned by women. “I circled back to the roots that combined my passions in life,” she said in her application, referring to her playing basketball in her youth. Her business experience began in marketing and operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, and includes two decades in financial services.

In her application, Loeffler wrote of her upbringing in Illinois: “From working on the family farm to creating jobs and opportunity in the business world, I have been blessed to live the American Dream. I am offering myself to serve hardworking Georgians as a political outsider in the United States Senate to protect that dream for everyone.”

Loeffler apparently holds strong conservative, pro-Trump views, saying in a letter to Gov. Kemp accompanying her application: “If chosen, I will stand with President Trump, Senator David Perdue, and you to Keep America Great. Together, we will grow jobs, strengthen the border, shutdown drug cartels and human traffickers, lower healthcare costs, and protect our national interests — at home and abroad.” That could become her campaign theme if she is appointed and wins the advantage of running as the incumbent for the last two years of Isakson’s term.

With her deep pockets, Loeffler can self-finance a campaign if she chooses while other candidates have to raise millions from donors. That’s an advantage for her, and her candidacy might provide an important benefit for Republicans now facing tough challenges from Democrats in this onetime GOP stronghold. Loeffler could appeal to suburban women, a critically important constituency that showed major defections from Republicans in recent elections.

These factors undoubtedly figure into Gov. Kemp’s decision-making, and Loeffler’s entry into the appointment competition could be a game changer. There has been speculation that she is a “top-tier potential appointee.” This is not the first time Loeffler has considered running for public office, including a bid for the 2014 open Senate seat that Republican David Perdue won. He is up for reelection next year as both the Senate seats are at stake.

But Loeffler’s move poses a potential obstacle to another apparent top contender for the interim appointment to Isakson’s seat — U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, one of President Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress. If Kemp does not choose Collins, is the congressman contemplating a run anyway for the last two years of Isakson’s term? He told the Atlanta newspapers: “In recent days and weeks, I’ve heard from more and more Georgians encouraging me to pursue statewide service. Those Georgians deserve to have me consider their voices — so I am, strongly.” If that comes to pass, there could be a tough fight between Republicans with negative fallout among the voters.

On the Democratic side, Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and a Cobb resident since 2005, has thrown his hat into the ring with a left-wing platform. But the state Democratic hierarchy is awaiting Kemp’s appointment before choosing a candidate to back for the 2020 "jungle" election.

All this is playing out against the backdrop of Democrats working to impeach President Trump — with consequences intended and unintended here and across the country. There’s no doubt the coming election cycle will be one of the most interesting and most crucial in Georgia’s long history of interesting and crucial elections.

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