Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to tap a wealthy businesswoman to replace retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) sets the stage for a wide-open special Senate election in 2020, as Republicans scramble to mend an intra-party rift that has opened up around the appointment.
In appointing Kelly Loeffler, the CEO of an Atlanta-based financial services firm, to replace Isakson in the Senate, Kemp bucked the wishes of President Trump and his allies, who had pressed the Georgia governor to pick Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) for the post.
Adding to the drama is Kemp’s handling of the Senate appointment. His office had solicited applications for the position for months in an effort to promote transparency. But Loeffler’s submission of her resume just under a Nov. 18 deadline fueled speculation that Kemp had decided on the businesswoman before she had ever applied for the Senate seat.
“There’s no doubt that right now there’s dust up,” said Chuck Clay, a former Georgia state senator and Republican Party chair. “There is definitely a little bit of a kerfuffle.”
Democrats hope to seize on GOP infighting to flip the seat in 2020. Alex Floyd, a spokesperson for the Georgia Democratic Party, called the rollout of Loeffler’s appointment a “self-inflicted disaster for Georgia Republicans,” adding that it would “cost” the party votes in next year’s special election.
Party operatives and officials have been in something of a holding pattern for months as they waited to see who Kemp would appoint to Isakson’s seat. So far, only one Democrat, Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur and the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), has jumped into the race.
But Democrats are increasingly confident about their chances in Georgia, encouraged by Democrat Stacey Abrams’s near-win against Kemp last year’s gubernatorial election, as well as Rep. Lucy McBath’s (D-Ga.) successful bid to oust former Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) in the state’s 6th congressional district.
Trump’s popularity has also dipped in the state in recent years. In November and December, the president’s approval rating fell to its lowest point in a year, according to polling data from Morning Consult.
Because it will be a special election, there won’t be primaries to determine the Republican and Democratic nominees, and candidates of all parties will appear on the ballot in November. If no candidate manages to reach the 50 percent threshold, a runoff election between the top two finishers will be held in January 2021.
Loeffler will enter the race with considerable advantages.
She has the full backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). And people familiar with the Atlanta businesswoman’s plans say she’s prepared to spend $20 million of her personal fortune.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, currently rates the Senate race as “likely Republican.”
Still, both sides see a competitive race in a presidential election year that will include races for both of Georgia’s Senate seats.
“If you look at the partisan makeup, if you look at the 2018 results up and down the ballot, I think there’s a lot of opportunity in both Senate seats,” said one Democratic official in Washington. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is up for reelection next year.
Republicans are focused on winning back suburban voters, especially women, who have abandoned the GOP under Trump. One Republican operative in Georgia said that the party had largely “conceded” the suburbs in the 2018 midterm elections.
Another GOP official said that appointing a senator like Loeffler could help the party broaden its appeal in the suburbs, arguing that the party’s struggles in those areas stemmed not from conservative policy positions but from voter dissatisfaction with Trump’s rhetoric and political style.
“So much of what happens with Trump and suburban displeasure with Trump has nothing to do with the policy stuff,” the official said. “It’s the tone, the rhetoric. It’s stylistic, but it’s not policy driven.”
Since news of her impending Senate appointment leaked out last week, Loeffler has faced a flurry of criticism from conservatives and Trump allies.
Two anti-abortion rights groups, the Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life, came out against her appointment in the days leading up to Kemp’s formal announcement, pointing to her role on the board of Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, which offers abortion services.
And some conservatives called her political record into question, pointing to past contributions to Democrats and to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In the days leading up to the official announcement of her appointment, Trump’s allies stepped up pressure on Kemp to reconsider his choice. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), an ardent ally of the president, warned Kemp that his political future may be in jeopardy if he broke with Trump on the Senate appointment. Sean Hannity, the conservative Fox News host, said on his radio show that Kemp was “about to make the biggest mistake” by choosing Loeffler.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager in 2016, panned Loeffler’s appointment as “pandering” to suburban women, telling conservative podcast host Todd Starnes that Kemp was misreading the political dynamics in Georgia.
“By appointing someone who has no electoral history, who did not support Donald Trump in 2016, to say that you need that person to go after suburban women voters, in my opinion, is pandering to that electorate, because I don’t believe suburban women voters only vote for another person because they’re a woman.”
The conservative backlash is a challenge for Loeffler, and Collins, who has emerged as one of Trump’s most ardent defenders in the face of the ongoing House impeachment inquiry, hasn’t ruled out a challenge in the state’s 2020 special Senate election.
Clay, the former state senator, said that such a challenge could be “a disaster” for the GOP’s efforts to hold onto the seat in 2020.
“The risk is obviously what if a Doug Collin jumps in the race against her next year with the backing of the president?” Clay said. “That’s a disaster.”
“I think you have to look at the race as being competitive,” he added. “Her biggest challenge is going to be nailing down the Republicans – getting them to buy into her.”
Both Kemp and Loeffler have already sought to soothe concerns about her appointment. In announcing Loeffler as his pick to fill Isakson’s Senate seat on Wednesday, Kemp urged Republicans to “rally around our new senator” and “unite over a shared vision for our future.”
Speaking in the governor’s ceremonial office moments later, Loeffler acknowledged that she has “a lot of work to do to earn the trust and support of my fellow Georgians.” But she insisted that she was “strongly pro-life” and supportive of Trump, all the while casting herself as a political outsider.
“I haven’t spent my life trying to get to Washington. But here’s what folks are gonna find out about me: I’m a lifelong conservative,” she said. “Pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall. I make no apologies for my conservative values, and will proudly support President Trump’s conservative judges.”