ATLANTA - Gov. Brian Kemp appointed financial executive Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, selecting the co-owner of Atlanta's WNBA franchise over a congressman that President Donald Trump repeatedly urged the Republican to pick.
During remarks in Kemp's ceremonial office, Loeffler presented herself as a lifelong conservative who is "pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump" to counter criticism painting her as a closet liberal.
"I make no apologies for my conservative values," she said, "and will proudly support President Trump's conservative judges."
A multimillionaire whose husband is chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange, Loeffler's advisers say she is prepared to pump $20 million of her own fortune into a 2020 campaign that's expected to shatter fundraising records.
Kemp was surrounded by high-ranking Republican officials when he made the announcement, hoping to present a united front for Loeffler amid mounting conservative criticism of his pick.
"We need less critics and more public servants," he said, urging Georgians to rally around Loeffler. "There's one thing I know for certain when it comes to making significant reforms and that is this: We are better and stronger together."
Loeffler will become the second woman in Georgia history to serve in the U.S. Senate when she is sworn in next year to succeed Republican Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down because of health issues.
Her selection ends months of maneuvering for the coveted seat, but it seems likely to open a tumultuous new phase. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins recently said he was "strongly" considering a run for the Senate seat if he wasn't picked.
"I appreciate the support I have received from the president and many others," Collins said Wednesday, "and right now, my primary focus is defending our president against partisan impeachment attacks."
Loeffler's appointment also creates a stark rift with the president, whose endorsement of Kemp last year helped him win a heated GOP primary runoff. The president repeatedly urged the governor to tap Collins, and a secretive meeting in Washington with Loeffler didn't win him over.
Georgia Republicans swiftly responded with messages of praise or support, though some took a more measured approach. House Speaker David Ralston stood near Kemp when he made the announcement, but he signaled in a statement that he was still apprehensive.
"Governor Kemp has chosen the person he believes is most qualified to represent our values in Washington," said Ralston, who has close ties to Collins. "I congratulate Ms. Loeffler and I look forward to getting to know her as we all work together to keep America great."
Fox News personality Sean Hannity urged his fans to clog Kemp's phone lines with their complaints, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, said it would be the "funeral" for the governor's political career.
Collins' allies had aggressively pushed Kemp to change his mind, describing the Gainesville Republican as a champion Trump needs to defend him against impeachment proceedings headed for the U.S. Senate.
But Kemp long wanted to pick a a woman or minority, mindful that his selection will be on the ballot in 2020 and also potentially on the ticket with him in 2022 when he could face a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
He is wagering that a first-time candidate can survive not only a challenge from energized Democrats eager to turn Georgia into a battleground, but also quiet conservative critics mistrustful of his pick.
And as a suburban conservative woman, she could help broaden the appeal of a Georgia GOP that's dominated by male elected officials – and has suffered losses in metro Atlanta that could jeopardize the Republican grip on state politics.
"Women are not better legislators, but we do bring a different perspective," said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican. "And it's time we are represented in the U.S. Senate in Georgia."
But Loeffler's appointment brings much uncertainty. She's not widely known, even in political circles, and her stances on the contentious debates that she'd have to tackle in Washington are unclear.
Some grassroots activists have already sounded the alarm, worried that she's too moderate because of campaign contributions she made in the past to Democratic candidates while not giving any money to Trump's campaign in 2016.
"It's one thing to say that you're a Republican, but actions speak louder than words," said Rebecca Yardley, the GOP chairwoman for the 9th District, who said she worries Loeffler stands in "direct opposition to our strong conservative values."
But her allies point to records that show Loeffler and her husband have given roughly $200,000 to the Republican National Committee since Trump's victory. The each also wrote $100,000 checks to take part in a recent Trump fundraiser in Atlanta, Kemp's advisers say.
The governor has pushed back on what he called "ridiculous" criticism, asserting that his pick would be an anti-abortion Republican who backs gun rights and is "100% supportive" of Trump.
And his advisers and supporters have launched a forceful defense of Loeffler and swung back in scathing terms at out-of-state critics.
But even the governor doesn't know what position the president might take - no small issue since a single tweet could damage, even doom, her campaign.
In her remarks, Loeffler suggested she would frame herself as a private-sector outsider eager to shake up Washington – much like U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who will also be on the ballot next year.
Perdue, a former Fortune 500 executive, promoted himself as a jean-jacketed sage to win office in 2014, and still presents himself as a political novice even though he's one of Trump's top allies.
"I am not a career politician or even someone who's run for office," Loeffler said. "Over the last 25 years, I've been building businesses, taking risks and creating jobs. I haven't spent my life trying to get to Washington."
Loeffler grew up weeding soybean fields on her family farm in Bloomington, Ill., and moved to Atlanta in 2002 after stints in five cities to become the chief of investor relations for Intercontinental Exchange, which was then an energy trading platform.
She and the company's CEO, Jeff Sprecher, wed in 2004. Sprecher later said he was a "consummate bachelor who was never going to get married, but she really knocked me off my feet."
Loeffler is credited with helping the company woo Wall Street investors to seal the purchase of the New York Stock Exchange, cementing its role as a behemoth financial trading platform.
She stepped down from a senior executive post last year to become the head of Bakkt, a financial services firm that's a subsidiary of her husband's company.
Loeffler plunged into politics in more recent years, including a $750,000 donation to the super PAC backing Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012. Her role as co-owner of the Atlanta Dream has also helped elevate her public profile.
"I circled back to the roots that combined my passions in life," Loeffler, who played basketball in her youth, said of the 2011 decision to buy a stake in the team. "I'm glad I took the risk I did for that full circle."
She has considered bids for public office before, including a run for the open Senate seat in 2014 that Perdue won. This time, she waited until three hours before a deadline to submit her resume for the position, likely at Kemp's behest.
Loeffler's stance on many of Georgia's biggest political debates is not yet known, which is both a benefit and a liability: She'll need to build credibility among GOP voters, but she also has no voting record that can come back to haunt her.
She sought to counter those concerns by introducing herself as a staunch Trump supporter who will fight the "socialist gang" in Washington bent on defeating the president.
"I've been called soft-spoken. But I've also been called a lot worse," she said. "In Congress, I may not be the loudest voice in the room. But you don't have to be shrill to be tough. And when it comes to fighting for Georgia, I will never back down. No one will fight harder for our state, our president and our conservative values."
Loeffler beat out a crowd of potential candidates that included current and former officeholders, business executives, a U.S. ambassador, decorated military veterans and radio commentators. A Democratic state legislator even applied.
A smaller group of top contenders vetted by Kemp's advisers emerged last week. They include state Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House; and Jackie Gingrich Cushman, an author and financial executive who is the daughter of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
When Loeffler takes office, she will join Rebecca Latimer Felton as the only female U.S. senators in state history. Felton served in the Senate for one day in 1922 after the death of Tom Watson, making her the first woman in the nation to hold the office.
Loeffler will soon be tested. The next weeks will bring a burst of scrutiny that will feed the intense runup to the 2020 vote. Her initial stances, including a possible vote on Trump's impeachment, will set the tone for her election campaign.
There's also a chance of a January 2021 runoff if no candidate wins a majority of the vote in November's special election, a distinct possibility when multiple contenders from all parties are on the same ballot. That prospect is even likelier if Collins decides to run.
In recent days, a growing number of Collins' allies praised the four-term congressman as Kemp's best option. And members of Trump's inner circle - including his son Donald Jr. and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner - had urged Kemp to promote Collins.
Several of Collins' supporters have put a finer point on it. They have scrutinized the Atlanta Dream's opposition to a Georgia "religious liberty" proposal and Loeffler's contributions to candidates who support abortion rights.
"There are better choices for Governor Kemp when it comes to the next U.S. Senator from Georgia," wrote the leaders of the Concerned Women for America. "We hope he doesn't pick the one the pro-life community will have to oppose."
Kemp's allies have forcefully tried to reframe the narrative from one that casts Kemp as defying the president to one that pits him standing up to pressure from the GOP establishment. And his allies have urged Republicans to trust his judgment.
"The only way for us to be successful in 2020 and 2022 is if we're unified," said Attorney General Chris Carr. "That's what we're going to have to do, and hopefully once folks get to know Kelly, she's somebody that we can rally behind."
It's not clear yet which Democrats could join the race, though party leaders hope to avoid a fractious fight of their own.
One candidate has entered without the party's support: Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, announced his campaign in October.
Other possible contenders include DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, DeKalb Chief Executive Michael Thurmond, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and state Sen. Jen Jordan, who scoffed at Loeffler's selection.
"You can have a woman candidate, but it's about the issues women care about. That's what people are going to vote for," Jordan said. "I wish her all the luck in the world. And I wish the governor some luck because it looks like he's had some trouble with Sean Hannity."
© 2019 Cox Media Group.