Instead, Loeffler and Kemp are confronting vocal criticism from anti-abortion leaders, conservative media figures and other Trump allies who wanted an attack dog for the president in the seat — particularly with a possible impeachment trial looming in the new senator’s first days.
Loeffler’s ability to bridge the gap and avoid a conservative insurrection will be critical to Republicans maintaining their hold over Georgia, which is an emerging presidential battleground state and also has two Senate elections that could help determine control of the chamber in 2021.
Senate Republicans have rallied behind Loeffler, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling her a “terrific appointment,” and the National Republican Senatorial Committee promising her the full backing of incumbency as she runs in a special election in November alongside first-term Sen. David Perdue.
“I think Republicans and self-identified conservatives are going to understand the importance of maintaining control of that Senate seat, especially when control of the entire United States Senate could hang in the balance,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the NRSC chairman.
But that support came after a sustained attack from conservatives, who preferred Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) for the nomination. Anti-abortion groups questioned Loeffler’s credentials, and conservative media, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, attacked Kemp and promoted Collins on TV and radio.
Kemp has punched back, calling questions about his decision “absolutely absurd” in a tweet last week. But senior Republicans have been grumbling about Kemp’s selection process for weeks, convinced that it was unnecessarily drawn out since Isakson’s announcement in August that he would resign at the end of the year. Had the governor named a choice quickly, they contend, he would have avoided much of the second-guessing and criticism that has emerged in recent days from right-of-center groups who complain that Loeffler lacks conservative credentials.
Among those offering advice was McConnell, who spoke with Kemp several times throughout the process. The Senate GOP leader never advocated for a specific candidate, according to a person familiar with the discussions, but stressed the importance of picking a candidate quickly. The advice went unheeded.
Others say Kemp erred by taking the selection process public. By accepting applications through online portal open for nearly two months, Kemp had hoped to create transparency. But his preference for Loeffler — a Republican mega-donor who only applied hours before the portal closed — has only raised more questions.
“I think the general feeling is that it’s been the process, and frankly the governor, that has made this a lot more difficult for her than it may have needed to be by letting her name dangle out there,” said one GOP operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. The operative added that there was hope Loeffler would be “more forward-leaning and aggressive in defining herself and pushing back” once she was officially named.
‘It was a very difficult job that the governor had — and knowing that he and David Perdue and Donald Trump have the rural white conservative voter, they needed to do something to stop the bleeding in the suburbs,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who also applied for the appointment. “Hopefully she’ll plug that hole.”
Some complain that Loeffler is too much of a blank slate and politically untested. Questions abound about her positions on key issues and her campaign skills — raising questions about whether she could survive a primary or a general election in a cycle when control of the Senate is at stake.
As a political unknown, Loeffler will be under pressure to introduce herself to voters quickly.
“She’s going to have to get on the ball,” said former Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.). “It takes time to travel to 159 counties and build relationships.“
Her personal wealth will help ease the effort of introducing herself to the electorate. One GOP operative said Loeffler’s ability to self-fund her campaign, combined with her support of Trump, will “dominate this race in a way that will blot out the sun.”
Trump is among those who’ve raised concerns. During a tense White House meeting last month, Trump pointed out to Kemp that Georgia is full of well-known Republicans who’d demonstrated an ability to survive politically.
To others, the concerns surround choreography. Over the weekend, Kemp called McConnell and members of the Georgia congressional delegation to inform them that he was selecting Loeffler. But the governor, not wanting to publicly announce his pick until after Isakson delivered his Tuesday farewell speech in the Senate, chose to wait until Wednesday to unveil his selection. The announcement is coming at the same time as the first impeachment hearings in the House — with Collins center-stage as the highest-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
The gap of several days gave Loeffler’s conservative critics — a list that ranged from Hannity to Family Research Council President Tony Perkins — a window to attack Loeffler without any pushback from the Kemp team.
Others, however, said they wouldn’t question Kemp, a first-term governor elected in 2018.
“I am not going to second-guess the governor,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Republicans hope that votes supportive of Trump’s agenda next year, combined with Loeffler’s ability to self-fund a massive campaign, will mostly silence the GOP critics. One of her earliest votes will likely be following an impeachment trial, an early opportunity to mount a sharp defense of the president. But that also risks tipping the balance too far and alienating moderate Republicans and independents.
“Everybody ought to take a breath and let the woman speak and act on her own before passing judgment,” said John Watson, a former GOP state chairman.
Loeffler’s appointment amounts to an 11-month audition for the seat. In the special election next November, all candidates will run on the ballot together, regardless of party. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff in January 2021.
Collins, notably, has declined to close the door on running if he didn’t get the nod from Kemp. And other Republicans could still decide to enter the race, even though Loeffler will have the backing of the NRSC.
Democrats, meanwhile, have delighted in the rift the appointment process has created. Alex Floyd, a spokesperson for the state Democratic party, called it a “self-inflicted disaster” that left Republicans “reeling.”
“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,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, Democrats have yet to rally behind a candidate for the seat after several high profile Democrats passed. Matt Lieberman, the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is the only one running, but several Democrats are considering their options and have been waiting to see whom Kemp would appoint. It’s unlikely other Democrats will announce bids until early next year to maximize attention and fundraising.
Some in the party aren’t overjoyed at the prospect of facing Loeffler, a businesswoman who can pour massive sums of money into the race.
“This choice could significantly extend the GOP’s dominance in Georgia and give Kemp a valuable ally for years to come,” said one Georgia Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But she’s untested —and if she falls flat, it’s solely on Kemp.”