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Georgia governor defies Trump with appointment to Isakson Senate seat

Gov. Brian Kemp has chosen Kelly Loeffler, but Rep. Doug Collins may run anyway

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson is resigning at the end of the year. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson is resigning at the end of the year. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is expected on Wednesday to appoint financial executive Kelly Loeffler to the Senate seat that Sen. Johnny Isakson is vacating at the end of the year.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the news that Loeffler would be Kemp’s pick, reported the timing of the appointment. Isakson is scheduled to deliver his farewell address to the Senate on Tuesday.

The governor, who won ran as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump last fall, is defying the president, who’d wanted him to pick Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Collins is playing a prominent role as a Trump defender during this week’s impeachment hearings and hasn’t ruled out running for the Senate seat despite not getting the appointment. 

Kemp’s decision to appoint a woman to the seat is an acknowledgment of just how much Georgia is evolving politically, with suburban women moving away from the Republican Party. Loeffler will be on the ballot in November 2020, at the same time as GOP Sen. David Perdue, in a state that Democrats are hoping to make a presidential battleground. Isakson’s term would have been up in 2023, so if Loeffler wins next fall, she’ll have to run again in 2022, when Kemp is also on the ballot. 

But by bucking Trump, who carried Georgia by 5 points in 2016, Kemp has provoked a conservative backlash from Trump loyalists. His team has tried to paint that opposition as led by out-of-state interests, such as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally who’s said Kemp deserves a primary challenge for defying the president’s wishes. Conservative radio host Mark Levin called Kemp “another Mitt Romney.”

More immediately, Kemp’s decision could set up GOP competition for the Senate seat in November. Even before Kemp announced his pick, Collins said he would consider running if he didn’t get the job. Since it’s a special election, candidates of all parties will run together on the November ballot. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a January 2021 runoff.

The race had attracted little Democratic attention before Kemp made his decision, with Democrats preferring to try to challenge Perdue. Having multiple Republicans on the ballot for the special election next November could boost a Democrat. But so far, Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, is the only Democrat running. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both Georgia Senate seats Likely Republican. 

Loeffler will likely bring her own money to the race. She’s the head of Bakkt bitcoin trading and co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA team. Her husband runs the Intercontinental Exchange, an Atlanta-based financial firm. 

Isakson announced in August he would resign at the end of the year because of health issues. More than 500 people applied to Kemp’s office for the vacancy. Loeffler would be only the second woman to represent Georgia in the Senate. The only other woman served just one day in 1922.

Susan B. Anthony List, which typically backs female candidates who oppose abortion rights, has come out against Loeffler, with president Marjorie Dannenfelser calling her an “unacceptable pick” because of her “deep ties to the abortion industry.”

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