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Georgia Governor Sparks Fight With Trump Allies Over Senate Appointment

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp plans to announce that he is naming Kelly Loeffler (right) as the state's next U.S. senator, replacing Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. Loeffler is an owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team and is shown here during a September game.
Rich von Biberstein
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp plans to announce that he is naming Kelly Loeffler (right) as the state's next U.S. senator, replacing Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. Loeffler is an owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team and is shown here during a September game.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp plans to appoint Kelly Loeffler on Wednesday as the state's next U.S. senator, effective Jan. 1, according to two sources with knowledge of Kemp's decision. The businesswoman and Republican donor will fill the seat held by Sen. Johnny Isakson, who plans toretire Dec. 31 for health reasons.

The pick comes despite strong opposition from prominent allies of President Trump, who is reportedto have favored Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., for the seat. Loeffler's conservative bona fides have been questioned, with conservative talk show host Mark Levin referring to her as a "RINO" (Republican in name only) on Sunday.

Loeffler is a wealthy businesswoman without political experience. The CEO of Bakkt, a Bitcoin-focused subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange Inc., casts herself as a "lifelong Republican" and tells a personal narrative of working her way up the corporate ladder from her family's farm in rural Illinois.

One of Kemp's most vocal critics over the weekend was Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close Trump ally, who said Kemp was "ignoring" Trump because "you THINK you know better than @POTUS." Another Trump confidant, Fox News personality Sean Hannity, also endorsedCollins last week.

Kemp's director of communications, Candice Broce, fired back at Gaetz directly, calling him "oddly submissive to #TheSwamp,"and said the appointment was Kemp's to make independently. Kemp's adviser and former campaign communications director, Ryan Mahoney, wrote: "mind your own business. We don't know you and we don't care what you think."

Loeffler herself has faced backlash in the past week from some members of Georgia's conservative political community for past donations to Mitt Romney and ties to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who did legal work for the WNBA team that Loeffler co-owns, the Atlanta Dream.

Phil Kent, a conservative pundit and communications consultant who has worked with Loeffler, vouchedfor Loeffler's conservative politics, describing her as "a big opponent of Obamacare," a supporter of gun rights and someone who's "very tough" on illegal immigration.

"So she would check some of those boxes with the president," said Kent.

Kemp has generally been seen as a close ally of the president. First elected governor in 2018, Kemp helped secure the Republican nomination with Trump's backing.

Amid the criticism, Kemp offered his own preemptive defense, writing on Twitter, "The idea that I would appoint someone to the U.S. Senate that is NOT pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-freedom, and 100% supportive of our President (and his plan to Keep America Great) is ridiculous." He added, "Frankly, I could care less what the political establishment thinks."

Loeffler takes the job following anonline application process that Kemp opened in September. She submitted her résumé on the day of the deadline.

Loeffler's company, Bakkt, offers a regulated market for bitcoin trading, and its parent company, ICE, owns and operates commodity and financial market exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange. Loeffler previously worked as ICE's chief communications and marketing officer and is married to its founder and CEO, Jeff Sprecher.

She grew up on her family's corn and soybean farm in Illinois and wrote in hercover letter to Kemp that "From working on the family farm to creating jobs and opportunity in the business world, I have been blessed to live the American Dream. I am offering myself to serve hardworking Georgians as a political outsider in the United States Senate to protect that dream for everyone."

"If our country is to embrace the conservative values that made America great, women must play a key role in that dialogue," she said in 2013 to the Georgia Federation of Republican Women. "This is where our voices are needed."

Her name was floated as a possible Senate candidate at that time, an option she ultimately rejected to remain with ICE amid its acquisition of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2013, she toldAtlanta magazine about her political experience, explaining that it amounted to "running against my best friend for student council president in eighth grade. It was all about the campaign posters and how many of the kids you could talk to at lunch break."

In her cover letter, she cast that as an advantage, writing about the importance, "now more than ever before — to have leaders with significant life and business experience outside of politics representing Georgia families in Washington, D.C."

If appointed, Loeffler will face reelection in November in an open race, without party primaries.

Collins was noncommittal when asked Sunday on Fox News if he would run against Loeffler in the November election, saying, "That'll be a decision that we'll have to make at that point." Collins is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and is also playing a prominent role as one of Trump's defenders in Congress.

2020 is set to be a big political year for Georgia. Buoyed by rapidly changing demographics, Democrats believe they have a chance to win the state for the first time since 1992. In addition, both of Georgia's Senate seats are on the ballot in November. Sen. David Perdue, also a Republican, is defending his seat. At least four major Democratic candidates are vying in the primary to challenge him.

Copyright 2019 WABE 90.1

Corrected: December 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier caption mistakenly referred to the Atlanta Dream WNBA team as the Atlanta Aces.