Conservatives are unhappy because they suspect she is not one of them. She reportedly has contributed to Democrats in the past and gave $750,000 to Mitt Romney’s 2012 PAC. Pro-lifers are opposed to her appointment because she sits on the board of an Atlanta-area hospital they say is a leading provider of abortions and “LGBTQ+ affirming therapeutic practices” to teenagers. Conservative media powers Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have joined the fray, preemptively opposing her prospective nomination, with Levin going so far as to label her a “RINO” (a Republican In Name Only).
The sin Kemp is accused of committing, however, is exactly what conservatives need if they want to cement national dominance. RINO is a pejorative term, but it’s undeniable that moderate suburbanites who once backed Republicans up and down the ticket have jumped ship since President Trump won the party’s nomination. Their defection nearly cost him the presidency despite the millions of formerly Democratic blue-collar voters whom he attracted. And their wholesale support for Democrats in 2018 is why Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House today.
Suburban Atlanta is ground zero for the RINOs’ revolt. Compared with Mitt Romney, Trump lost between 1 and nearly 10 percentage points of the vote in all nine of Metro Atlanta’s core counties. Kemp also ran far behind his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, in those counties in 2018, and even ran behind Trump’s already poor showing in seven. The Republican bloodletting extended down-ballot as well, as the GOP lost one U.S. House seat, two state Senate seats and a whopping 14 state House seats . Kemp knows that Republicans could easily lose statewide in 2020 and 2022 if that trend doesn’t shift.
Kemp is apparently banking on the idea that a successful, college-educated suburban businesswoman could appeal to enough of these former Republicans to stem the slide. That’s good in theory, but the practice will be harder to navigate.
The future Republican majority coalition in Georgia and elsewhere has to include suburban moderates, blue-collar populists and solid party loyalists of all stripes. These voters disagree on many things and are sharply divided on the president himself. Loeffler might be a natural politician, but even a natural could be flummoxed by the competing demands this coalition will impose.
Even in Atlanta, moderate suburbanites are less likely to be pro-life and pro-gun than conservatives and populists. Atlanta also has a long tradition of business-friendly tolerance, going so far as proclaiming it was “A City Too Busy to Hate” during the turbulent 1960s. Once Loeffler arrives in the Senate, she will have to craft a voting record that nods to these traditions while also reassuring the party base she hears and respects their concerns. That will be easier said than done.
There’s also the elephant in the Republican room: Trump himself. The president is said to prefer for the Senate seat one of his staunch defenders in the impeachment process, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.). In fact, Collins has pointedly not ruled out running against Loeffler in next year’s special election.
Suburban Atlanta might hold the key to the general election, but the core metro Atlanta counties cast only about one-third of the votes in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. If Kemp schedules the special election concurrently with the 2020 primary, Loeffler would have to face Republicans voters on May 19. It’s hard to establish a political identity in only 4½ months even with tens of millions of dollars at your beck and call.
Kemp is to be commended for forthrightly attempting to address his party’s political problem. Loeffler might end up proving to be just a new face for the old, pre-Trump coalition, which Republican primary voters will reject. Or she might became a new face for the current Trump coalition, which suburban RINOs will reject. But if she succeeds in becoming both a new face that represents a new, more inclusive politics while also making room for the old, she might have more than the Senate to look forward to.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) had not ruled out a primary contest against Kelly Loeffler next year. There will be no primary election for the senate seat, but there will be a nonpartisan “jungle primary” for the seat on Election Day.