The selection of Loeffler, a longtime Republican donor and financial executive, would defy the wishes of Trump as well as his congressional allies and supporters in conservative media, who have publicly lobbied for Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R) to fill the vacancy. He has been one of the president’s most ardent defenders throughout the House impeachment inquiry.
Trump has privately told Kemp that he favors Collins for the soon-to-be-open Senate seat, according to a separate person familiar with the matter, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about private discussions surrounding the pick. Trump on Monday gave Collins a boost of sorts, praising the four-term House lawmaker for defending him on TV.
“Great job by @RepDougCollins of Georgia over the weekend in representing the Republican Party, and myself, against the Impeachment Hoax!” Trump tweeted as he flew to London for the 70th anniversary celebration of NATO.
The public outcry against Kemp and Loeffler from Trump allies has led some of them to threaten a primary challenge against the first-term governor, and they have urged the president’s supporters to flood Kemp’s office with calls pushing him not to select Loeffler.
“Call @BrianKempGA now!” Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted Monday. “Why is he appointing Kelly Loeffler?”
Conservative radio host Mark Levin derided Kemp as “another Romney,” referring to the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and current senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, as he accused the Georgia governor of being on the precipice of appointing a “RINO,” a Republican in name only, to the Senate. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), another Trump ally, tweeted to Kemp that “maybe you need a primary in 2022” — a threat that prompted a ferocious pushback from Kemp’s aides over the Thanksgiving holiday.
A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on his pending decision, and a spokesman for Loeffler did not return a request for comment.
The formal announcement from Kemp is expected on Wednesday, the officials said, so as to not interfere with Isakson’s farewell address on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. One of the officials said the announcement will probably be made at a news conference at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Kemp’s expected selection of Loeffler was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Isakson announced in August that he would step down from the Senate, where he is serving his third term, on Dec. 31 because of health concerns. His successor would join the Senate in January.
Kemp’s expected decision to choose Loeffler is a remarkable and rare act of defiance against Trump’s expressed wishes from someone in his party. In the GOP gubernatorial primary last year, the president endorsed Kemp over Casey Cagle, the former lieutenant governor who had been perceived as the establishment and more electable pick.
But Kemp — who enthusiastically embraced Trump in his gubernatorial bid and ran a campaign ad that highlighted a big truck he uses “in case I need to round up criminal illegals” — has made it a point as governor to select minorities to judicial and criminal justice posts. Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams, the African American former minority leader in the state House of Representatives, in a bitterly contested race last year.
His decision to choose Loeffler reflects a growing concern among many in the party that it has to reach out to a broader group of voters than white men. Recent losses in the 2018 midterm elections as well as gubernatorial race setbacks in Kentucky and Louisiana this fall showed the GOP falling behind in suburban communities, particularly among female and minority voters.
Loeffler would be the first woman to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate for a significant length of time. The first woman from Georgia to serve in the job, Rebecca Latimer Felton, held the position for only a day.
“The governor’s picks from Day One have signaled his desire to broaden the party’s officeholders beyond white men,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP communications consultant in the state and longtime spokesman for former governor Nathan Deal (R). “He has an admirable record on that.”
He added: “It appears the governor hopes to win back some of the college-educated white women who abandoned Republicans in Georgia last year.”
Loeffler is the chief executive officer of Bakkt, a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange, and also co-owns the Atlanta Dream, the local WNBA team. Her wealth would allow Loeffler to self-fund her campaign, which Robinson noted “is helpful when we’re entering an 11-month sprint to the special election.”
Whomever Kemp appoints will have to run for the seat in 2020 and then again in 2022, when Isakson’s term would have been up.
Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, has defended Trump frequently, both during congressional hearings and on Fox News, denying the charge from Democrats that Trump sought to leverage a White House visit and military aid desperately sought by Ukraine in exchange for that country launching investigations into his political rivals.
“This is a complete American waste of time right here,” Collins said of the impeachment inquiry during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
Collins will have a starring role Wednesday as the impeachment fight shifts to the Judiciary Committee — he is the panel’s top Republican — where a hearing will be held to explore the legal arguments for removing a president from office with four constitutional scholars.
Collins fired off a letter to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), on Monday, pressing him for information on the hearing, saying little has been offered.
In the letter, sent before Democrats on the committee eventually released a witness list, Collins told Nadler that “for the first time in history, this Committee will weigh impeachment without any evidence for us to review.”
If Kemp makes the Loeffler pick official later this week, she is expected to be treated like an incumbent by GOP congressional leaders ahead of the special election in November — meaning she will have the full support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s official campaign arm, according to a person familiar with party strategy.
That backing could prove crucial for Loeffler, particularly if Collins wages a primary campaign for the seat next year.
Collins has not ruled out a bid, and he declined to comment during the “Fox News Sunday” interview over the weekend on Kemp’s expected decision to choose Loeffler over him.
“I appreciate the support I’ve received from the president and many others,” Collins said during the interview. But now, he said, “I have a big job in the next three weeks, and that’s impeachment.”
Georgia’s other senator, David Perdue (R), is up for reelection next fall. National Republicans attempted to recruit Loeffler to run in 2014, but she declined.
Democrats are already gearing up for a fall 2020 election contest against her.
“This broken appointment process has turned into a corrupt coronation for a donor who’s given millions of dollars to politicians from both parties and is now trying to buy a Senate seat,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss said in a statement. “It’s everything Georgians hate about Washington and why they’ll reject Kelly Loeffler in 2020.”