2020 elections

Trump and Kemp Butt Heads Over Georgia Senate Appointment

Will the “politically incorrect conservative” Kemp defy his benefactor the president to put a woman in an open Senate seat? Photo: Joshua Lott/AFP/Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After an unusual open-application process that attracted literally hundreds of aspirants, Georgia governor Brian Kemp will soon choose someone to fill the last three years of the U.S. Senate term of Johnny Isakson, who is resigning for health reasons at the end of the year. His appointee will face a special election next year (when the other Senate seat, occupied by Republican David Perdue, will also be up), and will have to run again in 2022 if she or he wants to continue in the upper chamber.

As you may recall, Kemp was very narrowly elected governor over Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, after an abrasively right-wing campaign (he called himself a “politically incorrect conservative”) accompanied by alleged manipulation of Georgia’s voter rolls as secretary of State. He first won the GOP gubernatorial primary by trouncing the early front-runner Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle in a runoff, in no small part thanks to a late endorsement by Donald J. Trump.

According to multiple sources, Trump is cashing in his chits with Kemp by demanding that he fill the Isakson seat with Congressman Doug Collins, his personal pit bull on the House Judiciary Committee. Here’s how the Wall Street Journal reports it:

In recent days, the president has spoken to Mr. Kemp at least twice—once face-to-face in Atlanta and once on the phone—urging him to pick Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.), a vocal supporter of the president in Congress, these people said. Mr. Collins, a white conservative from north Georgia, has pushed for months to get the seat that Sen. Johnny Isakson, 74 years old, is leaving at the end of the year because of health problems.

Collins, the ranking Republican on Judiciary, is prepping for a star role when the committee takes up the crafting of articles of impeachment against Trump at some point after Thanksgiving. You can safely assume he will snarl and rant on the president’s behalf, much like his colleague Devin Nunes has done during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings. And Trump would love to reward him in advance with the assurance that he can step from the glare of the cameras right into a coveted Senate seat.

But as Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Kemp seems to have other plans:

The ramp-up seeks to force Kemp’s hand after a new favorite has emerged in the race for the coveted post: Kelly Loeffler, a financial executive and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, applied for the seat just before a Monday deadline …

Kemp has also long said he wanted to tap an unconventional candidate – which, in Georgia Republican parlance, can be viewed as someone who isn’t a white male. Two other applicants said to be on the short list – Robyn Crittenden and Allen Poole – are African-American members of his administration.

Kemp is focused on the difficult task of defending two Senate seats in a presidential year in which Georgia could become a national battleground state thanks to recent Democratic gains. Two north Atlanta suburban House districts will also be in play. Loeffler, a white woman from Atlanta, is wealthy enough to self-finance a campaign. The governor has exhibited fury at anyone telling him what to do on this appointment, though again, he owes Trump. Another factor is that Collins has made it clear that if he’s bypassed, he might very well run against Kemp’s appointee in the 2020 special election, a nonpartisan “jungle primary” that coincides with the general-election date (with a January runoff if no one wins a majority). If Loeffler is the pick, this contest could become nasty and ideological (Loeffler is vulnerable to RINO charges thanks to a background of occasionally giving money to Democrats) and backfire on the party, giving whomever emerges as the Democratic front-runner a real shot at the seat, which could, in a runoff, decide control of the Senate.

Some fear Loeffler, a multi-millionaire who is little known in the Georgia GOP, would struggle to energize grassroots conservatives. Others worry that a battle between a white man from north Georgia and a white woman from the suburbs could further alienate metro Atlanta moderates.

There is a wild card in Kemp’s deliberations, though. If there’s anyone he owes even more for his election than Trump, it would be the Perdue cousins: Senator David and former Governor and Trump Secretary of Agriculture Sonny, who helped bring Trump into the 2018 contest on Kemp’s behalf, and who together have been dominant figures in the state party for years. As the AJC notes in a separate article, there is circumstantial evidence that the Perdues are in cahoots with Trump to impose Collins on the stubborn governor:

Within the AJC article is a link to a McLaughlin & Associates poll memo addressed to Collins, extolling the support the congressman can muster within the Georgia GOP base. It’s worth noting that McLaughlin & Associates is the polling firm used by the Trump re-election campaign. Nathan Deal also used the firm in his gubernatorial campaigns.

The memo, first obtained by Politico.com, is dated Nov. 8, which is important. That’s the day that Collins and the Perdue cousins flew down to Atlanta with Trump on Air Force One, for a series of fundraisers and an effort to boost the president’s support among African-American voters.

Given the timing, one presumes that Trump was the memo’s chief audience. It was on the ride from the airport to downtown Atlanta when the president first pressed Kemp to give Collins the jobs. A phone call from the president to Kemp came on Wednesday.

If Kemp is able to resist pressure from all these benefactors and do as he wants, he may rebrand himself as the big dog of Georgia GOP politics, or touch off a vicious knife fight that helps Democrats reach the summit that Abrams very nearly achieved.

Trump and Kemp Butt Heads Over Georgia Senate Appointment