Gov. Brian Kemp has chosen a wealthy businesswoman and political newcomer to fill an upcoming vacancy in the U.S. Senate, flouting President Donald Trump’s preferred candidate in a play for moderate suburban voters.
Kemp formally announced his selection of Kelly Loeffler on Wednesday, pushing aside intense criticism from hard-core Trump advocates who wanted Kemp to appoint Rep. Doug Collins, one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress.
But Loeffler has been quickly embraced by Senate GOP leadership, which could make any top-tier Republican candidate rethink plans to challenge her for the seat. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called her “a terrific appointment.”
Collins has publicly left open the door to challenging Loeffler for the seat, but McConnell said she has his backing as well as that of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“She will be an incumbent Republican Senator,” McConnell said.
Loeffler will succeed three-term Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down at the end of the month because of health issues. She will be only the second woman in history to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.
The seat will be up for grabs again in a November 2020 special election for the final two years of Isakson’s term, and then again in 2022. Also on next year’s ballot will be Republican Sen. David Perdue, who is running for a second full term.
Loeffler emphasized her conservative values at a press conference.
“Over the last 25 years, I’ve been building businesses, taking risks and creating jobs. I haven’t spent my life trying to get to Washington, but there are a few things folks are going to find out about me,” Loeffler said. “I’m pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-Wall, and pro-Trump. I’m a life-long conservative, and I make no apologies for my conservative values. I’m strongly pro-life and believe that every life is a blessing. When it comes to protecting the innocent, I don’t look to government for the answers. I look to God.”
Loeffler also criticized the Trump impeachment inquiry.
“With all of the important work to be done in D.C. and here in Georgia, I’m disgusted by the impeachment circus and strongly oppose it,” Loeffler said. “It’s a sideshow and partisan distraction. Democrats need to quit playing politics.”
With both of Georgia’s GOP-held Senate seats on the ballot alongside Trump in 2020, the race is raising the state’s profile as a political battleground where Republicans still dominate but Democrats have made substantial inroads in recent elections.
Collins said in a statement Wednesday that he appreciated the support he had received and would continue to prioritize defending Trump in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The governor has the right to make this appointment, and I respect the decision he has made. I congratulate Kelly Loeffler on her appointment to serve our great state as Georgia’s next senator,” Collins said. “I appreciate the support I have received from the president and many others, and right now, my primary focus is defending our president against partisan impeachment attacks.”
Theresa Webb, chair of the Hall County Republican Party, said she trusted that Kemp had made the right decision but would watch Loeffler’s voting record in the Senate.
“I have confidence in the governor, and I feel like he has vetted her as well as he could vet her, because she doesn’t have any political experience,” Webb said. “Nobody knows how she is going to vote. We know what she says, but we’ve been down that road before.”
Webb said with two Senate seats on the ballot next year, “that’s going to be the toughest race that we have ever had in the state.”
“There will be a lot of money poured into the state against both of the candidates,” she said.
Douglas Young, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia, said Loeffler’s lack of a political record could be seen as positive.
“That can be an advantage to the extent that her opponents don’t have a whole lot to criticize her about,” Young said. “They have no controversial legislative votes to point to, and so people can sort of project on to her whatever they hope she really believes.”
Young said that because Loeffler does not have a political record to study, it can be hard to determine what her time in the Senate will look like.
“We don’t know what kind of job she is going to do as a legislator. She has no legislative or elective public office background to scrutinize,” Young said.
But Kemp has a history of making appointments that some see as unexpected, Young said.
“Gov. Kemp has surprised a lot of people by naming a lot of folks to state government positions who don’t fit the stereotype of older, white men staffing the Republican Party leadership positions,” Young said.
Young said people moving to Georgia from either out of state or other countries are changing the political landscape, and Loeffler may appeal to people who would otherwise leave the Republican Party.
“He may well be concerned about the many recent defections from the Republican Party in recent years made by a lot of upper middle class, suburban, white women living particularly in the North Atlanta suburbs,” Young said.
Carl Cavalli, another UNG political science professor, also said Loeffler could gain the support of suburban women.
“Suburbs in general around the nation have been becoming more Democratic. Women have been shifting away from the Republican Party, and this may be a way to attempt to hold onto them,” Cavalli said.
If Loeffler runs for the seat in 2020, she will likely have an advantage as the incumbent, Cavalli said.
“Isakson’s retirement and her appointment at this point in time essentially gives her almost a year’s advantage over anybody else who might have sought that seat in 2020,” he said.
Isakson said in a statement Wednesday he supported Loeffler’s appointment.
“Kelly’s business experience and acumen will be an asset to Georgia and the Senate. The same tireless work ethic that has helped her succeed in business will also help her succeed in serving Georgians and our nation,” Isakson said.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, praised Kemp’s appointment of Loeffler in a statement Wednesday.
“He has placed key Georgians in appointments in his brief tenure as governor. His appointment for the United States Senate will be no exception,” he said. “Kelly Loeffler has a strong business record and she will use those assets in the U.S. Senate representing Georgia. I look forward to working with her.”
Perdue also said he would continue to support Trump.
“My number one goal is to continue the best economic turnaround in U.S. history and focus on the needs of the people of Georgia,” Perdue said in a statement.
Loeffler is the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream professional women’s basketball franchise and CEO of financial services company Bakkt, which offers a regulated market for Bitcoin. She was previously an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, a behemoth founded by her husband that owns the New York Stock Exchange.
Times reporter Megan Reed contributed to this report, which has been updated from its original version.