On the Sunday before Thanksgiving the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, made a secret trip to the White House to introduce his pick for the next senator from Georgia to President Donald Trump.
A Trump-aligned conservative wrapping up his first year in office, Kemp had brought along Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman and political novice whom he wanted to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who will retire at the end of the year. Former White House aide Nick Ayers, an important player in Georgia Republican politics, came along to sell Trump on Loeffler.
But the charm offensive didn’t work. An official familiar with the meeting told CNN the President was frustrated and advised Kemp against tapping Loeffler. He told Kemp he wanted him to select Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a vocal critic of the impeachment effort.
The scene was unusual – governors, even Republicans in the age of Trump, rarely make overt appeals to the President about Senate appointments. Stranger still, Kemp looked prepared to buck the President, discarding the boost-the-base political strategy they both embraced in 2018 and 2016 for an appeal to the more moderate, suburban voters Republicans have lost.
Kemp announced at a press conference in Atlanta on Wednesday morning that Loeffler will succeed Isakson. He introduced Loeffler as a “conservative businesswoman and political outsider.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who’s the Senate majority leader, told reporters Tuesday that he would be “behind” Loeffler and said she would be “terrific” – a sure sign the Washington GOP establishment is welcoming her selection. She’ll also have the support of the powerful National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-allied super PAC, in next year’s election.
Republicans in Georgia say whoever Kemp picks to fill Isakson’s seat has important implications for the future of the GOP. Selecting Loeffler suggests Georgia Republicans are starting to look beyond Trump’s coalition for the long-term health of their party.
A strategic selection
Under Georgia law, whoever replaces Isakson will have to run in November 2020 to serve out the last two years of his term. They could have a lot of competition. Georgia will hold a jungle primary for the Isakson seat, meaning multiple candidates from both parties can challenge Kemp’s appointee.
Whoever emerges as the winner next year will have to run again two years later, in 2022. They’ll have to be popular enough to fend off any Republican challengers who might split the GOP vote, and also help the party weather shifting political coalitions and the state’s changing demographics, which Republicans worry could threaten their statewide dominance.
That’s a lot to place on a first-time politician like Loeffler.
Several Republican operatives in Georgia say Loeffler could be a smart selection as the state GOP grapples with how to attract moderate suburban voters. A “white male conservative doesn’t bring anything to the ticket,” one operative told CNN. If Loeffler is appointed and wins election in 2020, she’ll be the first woman elected to the Senate in state history.
A 49-year-old executive at a commodities trading firm in Atlanta, Loeffler is a prominent Republican donor who considered running for the Senate in 2014. Despite co-owning the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and being familiar to the Atlanta business community, Loeffler has little statewide name recognition.
But she is an attractive candidate for other reasons, including her ability to self-fund her campaign.
With Republicans looking at Trump and Sen. David Perdue (who is up for reelection) at the top of their ticket in Georgia next fall, some say Loeffler inserts some much-needed diversity. “On paper, she fits the bill of what you’re looking for – somebody who can bring the suburban women vote in, and who’s got a good story to tell,” said the GOP operative.
Another Republican strategist familiar with Georgia said Loeffler “couldn’t have a better résumé to appeal to the suburban Atlanta voter.”
But with no political track record or proven campaign skills, Loeffler presents a risk for Republicans, too. “Time will tell how she performs on the stump,” said the strategist.
Winning back the suburbs
Appealing to suburban voters has been a big part of the GOP’s rise in the Peach State. Georgia was the last Southern state to elect its first Republican governor when Sonny Perdue won in 2002, and the party’s strength in Atlanta’s growing suburbs delivered GOP majorities in the state Legislature and congressional delegation.
But that strength has waned recently as Democrats have become more competitive in Georgia’s suburbs. That strength was on display in last year’s governor’s race, when Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 2 percentage points of beating Kemp. Abrams won the Atlanta suburban counties of Cobb and Gwinnett, which were once considered Republican strongholds. In much the same way in 2016, Trump lost Cobb and Gwinnett after Mitt Romney had easily won them in 2012.
“Republicans in Georgia lost suburban voters who identify as Republican but don’t like Trump,” said Erick Erickson, the Atlanta-based talk-radio host and conservative activist. “Kemp himself saw a loss of support from those voters because he was perceived as being Trump’s candidate.”
In picking Loeffler, Kemp not rejected only Trump’s personal advice but also the White House’s broader political strategy to maximize Republican base voters in 2020. Some Georgia Republicans say it could redound to Kemp’s benefit. The GOP operative told CNN that Kemp will have the ability to say to swing voters in 2022 that he was not a puppet of Trump.
That only works, however, if Republican voters in Georgia get on board with Loeffler and she wins the election outright next fall. Some conservative interest groups and media outlets have raised concerns that Loeffler does not pass certain ideological litmus tests, particularly on abortion.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who’s a close ally of Trump’s, has called on Kemp to appoint Collins and blasted the governor’s expected plans to defy Trump.
Kemp responded to these charges, without revealing his selection, by tweeting last week: “The idea that I would appoint someone to the U.S. Senate that is NOT pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-freedom, and 100% supportive of our President (and his plan to Keep America Great) is ridiculous.”
Whether a Trump ally like Collins – who has not ruled out running for the seat in 2020 – would actually jump in could depend a lot on the President’s acceptance of Loeffler.
To that point, Loeffler has one key asset in her favor: money. Last month, she donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising operation to help reelect the President.
“If that’s a rehearsal, wait until you see the dance,” said the Republican operative.
This story has been updated to reflect that Kemp appointed Loffler on Wednesday.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Kristen Holmes and Nick Valencia contributed to this story.