Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is bringing his political career to a premature end for health reasons, delivered his farewell remarks yesterday, clearing the way for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to announce his choice to fill the senator’s vacancy until the next election.
As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the first-year governor introduced his choice this morning, though there was some controversy surrounding the process.
Gov. Brian Kemp appointed financial executive Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, selecting the co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise over a congressman that President Donald Trump repeatedly urged the Republican to pick. In remarks in Kemp’s ceremonial office, Loeffler presented herself as a lifelong conservative who is “pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump” to counter criticism pitting her as a closet liberal.
“I make no apologies for my conservative values,” she said, “and will proudly support President Trump’s conservative judges.”
At first blush, this may seem straightforward to the point of being boring: a conservative Republican senator resigned; a conservative Republican governor had the responsibility of choosing someone to fill the vacancy; and the conservative Republican governor appointed a conservative Republican senator. No muss, no fuss, right?
Wrong. In fact, this has proven to be an unexpectedly messy intra-party fight.
At the heart of the conflict, not surprisingly, is Donald Trump, who wanted Kemp to choose Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a loyal White House ally, for the Senate seat. In fact, the president recently met with the governor and urged Kemp to follow his direction.
The governor resisted the presidential pressure, which only made matters worse.
It wasn’t long before the lobbying campaign expanded, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), another unrelenting White House ally, suggested Kemp should face a primary challenger if he failed to appoint Trump’s preference for the Senate seat. Fox News’ Sean Hannity started using his platform to also urge the governor – more than once – to simply do what the president asked him to do.
Kemp nevertheless stuck to his guns, ignored the pressure, and appointed Loeffler, a prominent Georgia businesswoman and mega-donor. In the short term, the announcement ends the lobbying campaign, but the next fight is already visible on the horizon: Doug Collins, despite having been passed over, has indicated that he plans to run for the seat next year, even if that means taking on Loeffler in a Republican primary.
It raises the prospect of a GOP fight pitting the president’s choice for the seat against the governor’s choice for the seat.
Complicating matters, it’s difficult to say exactly why Kemp ignored the pressure and appointed Loeffler, who’s never previously held elected office. Why didn’t he follow Trump’s lead? Why take a risk on an untested political novice?
The answers aren’t altogether clear. Some have suggested the governor would’ve looked weak if he simply gave into Trump’s demands, so the circumstances effectively forced Kemp into following through on his own initial choice. Others have noted that the Republican Party is struggling badly with suburban women voters, and Kemp saw Loeffler as the kind of candidate/appointed incumbent who might appeal to this increasingly Democratic constituency, despite her far-right vision and agenda.
We’ll soon see whether voters endorse the governor’s apparent calculus. Loeffler will run next year in a special election, hoping to serve the remaining two years on Isakson’s term. If she overcomes a likely primary challenge and wins the general election – in a state that’s growing increasingly competitive – Loeffler will have to run for her own term just two years later in 2022, when Kemp will be at the top of Georgia’s ballot during his re-election campaign.
The likely result, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently put it, is an “all-out Republican feud.”