ATLANTA — Georgia’s governor is expected to appoint a wealthy business executive to replace an outgoing U.S. senator, according to a GOP political consultant, bypassing President Donald Trump’s preferred pick and betting instead that a moderate woman can garner enough support to hold onto the seat next year.
Brian Kemp's choice of Kelly Loeffler, a political newcomer, defies fellow Republicans who had pushed him to choose Rep. Doug Collins, one of Trump's staunchest defenders in Congress. Loeffler will fill the seat of retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down because of health issues.
The consultant spoke Monday to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because Kemp has yet to publicly announce the decision, which comes after weeks of speculation over his choice for a Senate seat Democrats are hoping to win in 2020.
Trump made clear that he preferred Collins to Loeffler but he has resigned himself to the pick, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream professional woman's basketball franchise, will have to defend the seat next November as Republicans battle to maintain control of the Senate and the White House.
Collins has publicly left open the door to running against her.
Loeffler is the CEO of financial services firm Bakkt, which offers a regulated market for Bitcoin. She was previously an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, a behemoth founded by her husband that owns the New York Stock Exchange. Bakkt is a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange.
The Senate seat will be up for grabs again in November 2020 in an open-to-all special election for the final two years of Isakson's term. Also on the ballot will be Republican Sen. David Perdue, another vocal Trump defender. With both of Georgia's GOP-held Senate seats on the ballot alongside Trump in 2020, the race is raising the state's profile as a political battleground where Republicans still dominate but Democrats have made substantial inroads in recent elections.
A Loeffler victory in 2020 would make her the first woman elected to the Senate from Georgia.
Kemp's selection of Loeffler was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. News of the choice set off infighting among Republicans almost immediately, with several conservative groups and Trump allies attacking Loeffler for being a political novice and appearing too moderate.
The debate centers on who can best help the GOP position itself for success next year in Georgia.
"This is a strategic effort on (Kemp's) part to diversify the party but also to reclaim some ground in metro Atlanta with college-educated white women," said Brian Robinson, a Republican political adviser in Georgia who served as communications director under former Gov. Nathan Deal.
In bypassing Collins, who would have brought instant name recognition and a ready-built campaign coffer, Kemp risked angering Trump and triggering a Collins challenge to his appointee. And Kemp is keenly aware that a single tweet from the president could be the difference between victory and defeat for Loeffler. Such a tweet was credited with helping Kemp pull off an upset victory in last year's GOP primary for Georgia governor.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to capitalize on dissatisfaction with Washington and break the GOP's hold on the Deep South. They're spending big in Georgia in the hopes that demographic changes making the state less rural and more diverse could help them deliver an upset in November.
Democrat Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, has announced a bid for the seat, and several other Democrats are mulling potential bids.
In September, Kemp took the unusual step of opening an online application process for the Isakson Senate seat and asked everyone from congressmen to ordinary Georgians to apply.
The governor's office was soon flooded with hundreds of applications. Many were sincere. Others, like one submitted for Kermit the Frog, were not.
Loeffler submitted her application just hours before the online portal was closed, prompting speculation that she may have done so at Kemp's urging.
Other top Republicans who applied include Collins, former congressman Jack Kingston, state House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Taylor reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller in London contributed to this story.