Trump and his allies had called for the governor to appoint Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) to Isakson’s seat.
But in tapping Loeffler, Kemp is hoping to strengthen the Republican Party’s appeal to female voters, many of whom have abandoned the party and its candidates in recent years.
Kemp himself narrowly prevailed over Stacey Abrams (D), a former minority leader in the Georgia state House, in last year’s hotly contested gubernatorial race.
Isakson, who has served in Congress for more than two decades, announced in August that he would step down at the end of the year from the Senate seat he has held since 2005, citing mounting health problems.
His resignation and Loeffler’s appointment sets up a special election in 2020. The state’s other senator, Republican David Perdue, faces a reelection bid of his own next year. That leaves two Senate seats up for grabs in Georgia.
Kemp said on Wednesday that he had “no short list prepared or leading candidate in mind” when he set out to find Isakson’s replacement earlier this year. But he emphasized Loeffler’s business credentials and outsider status as reasons for her appointment, characteristics he said she shared with Trump and Perdue.
“I am excited to appoint a lifelong Republican who shares our conservative values and our vision for a safer stronger Georgia,” Kemp said. “We’ve seen firsthand the impact of political insiders like Donald Trump and David Perdue in Washington DC. It’s time we send them some reinforcements to keep America great.”
Even before Loeffler’s official appointment this week, Trump and congressional Republicans were said to be frustrated with Kemp’s decision.
The president and House conservatives had been pushing Kemp to appoint Collins, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee who has played a crucial role in defending Trump in the face of an ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a staunch ally of the president, suggested that by bucking Trump’s will, Kemp may be setting himself up to face a primary challenge in 2022.
“If you substitute your judgement for the President’s, maybe you need a primary in 2022,” Gaetz tweeted. “Let’s see if you can win one w/o Trump.”
Loeffler, a multimillionaire, is planning to spend $20 million of her personal fortune on her Senate bid next year, according to a person familiar with her plans. She’s the CEO of the financial services firm Bakkt and a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise.
And despite gripes from some of the president’s allies and Republicans in the House, Loeffler has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has called her a “terrific appointment.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Wednesday backed Loeffler in a statement sent by McConnell.
“I welcome Governor Kemp’s announcement that he will appoint Kelly Loeffler,” McConnell said in the statement. “Senator-designate Loeffler will have my full support for reelection in 2020 as a Republican incumbent and I encourage all my colleagues to join me.”
But she’s likely to face some political hurdles. Loeffler has come under fire from conservatives for past political contributions to Democrats, and the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List came out against her expected appointment last week, citing her position on the board of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, which the group called a “training ground for abortionists.”
In remarks at a gathering in Kemp’s ceremonial office on Wednesday, Loeffler sought to reassure wary conservatives, asserting that she is “pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.” She acknowledged, however, that as a political “outsider,” she has “a lot of work to do to earn the trust and support of my fellow Georgians.”
Loeffler also took aim at what she called the “socialist gang in Washington” led by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the leading progressives in the Democratic presidential primary race.
“They want to overturn our way of life because they resent America’s success,” Loeffler said of Washington Democrats. “They can’t tell you how much their socialist ideas will cost, they don’t care how many jobs will be destroyed and they can’t even agree that they want to protect our borders. The only thing they agree on is that they hate Donald Trump.”
Kemp sought to soothe concerns about Loeffler, as well, asking other Senate hopefuls who submitted applications for the appointment to “rally around our new senator” and “unite over a shared vision for our future.”
“There’s one thing I know for certain when it comes to making significant reforms and that is this: we are better and stronger together,” Kemp said.
Loeffler faces the possibility of an electoral challenge from Collins, who raised the prospect of running for the Senate seat in 2020 if he wasn’t selected to fill the vacancy.
There will not be a primary to fill Isakson’s seat next year. Because it’s a special election, all candidates, including Democrats and Republicans, will appear on the ballot together in November, and if no candidate manages to win more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will compete in a runoff election in January 2021.
Reid Wilson contributed.
— Updated at 10:55 a.m.