Ga. gov­er­nor ex­pected to defy Trump in Se­nate pick

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SEUNG MIN KIM

Ge­or­gia Gov. Brian Kemp is ex­pected to tap busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive Kelly Lo­ef­fler for the Se­nate seat be­ing va­cated by re­tir­ing Sen. Johnny Isak­son (R), ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the matter, a move that has ig­nited an in­tra­party fight as al­lies of Pres­i­dent Trump mount a last-minute cam­paign to pres­sure the gov­er­nor to change his mind.

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 de­fend

ers 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.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ge­or­gia Gov. Brian Kemp’s ex­pected choice of Kelly Lo­ef­fler, a long­time Repub­li­can donor and fi­nan­cial ex­ec­u­tive, to fill the seat be­ing va­cated by re­tir­ing Sen. Johnny Isak­son (R) is a rare act of de­fi­ance against the pres­i­dent’s ex­pressed wishes from some­one in his party.

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