On Wednesday morning, Gov. Brian Kemp formally named wealthy businesswoman and Republican donor Kelly Loeffler to replace the retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson on Jan. 1.
This came despite strong backlash from prominent conservative pundits and politicians. The fallout came partly from the perception that Kemp has made the decision against the wishes of President Donald Trump. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has said Trump supported him for the choice instead.
“There’s been a lot of political agendas from Washington, D.C., and New York, but this is about putting Georgians first,” Kemp said about that backlash at the announcement. “This is why I have made this pick. And now I just urge everyone who’s been clamoring to settle down, learn the truth and the facts.”
Conservatives have also criticized Loeffler as too moderate given her lack of a voting record, her past political donations to Mitt Romney, and her ties to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams who has done legal work for the WNBA team Loeffler co-owns, the Atlanta Dream.
Loeffler spoke out strongly Wednesday, denying those charges.
“I’m a lifelong conservative,” she said. “Pro-second amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.”
She said the criticism gave her “no second thoughts” about the decision.
“I know I have a lot of work to do to earn the trust and support of my fellow Georgians,” she said at the announcement. “So for starters, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kelly Loeffler. I’m a devoted wife. A proud patriot and a devout Christian.”
Loeffler will be Georgia’s second female senator in history. Rebecca Felton served in 1922 for just 24 hours.
“I have lived the American dream. I am blessed to stand here today,” she said. “But it is a long way from where I came from.”
Loeffler said the reason she’s taking the job is to protect that American dream for future generations.
“I’m not a career politician. Or even someone who’s run for office,” she said. “I’ve spent the last 25 years building businesses, taking risks and creating jobs. I haven’t spent my life trying to get to Washington.”
Loeffler grew up working on her family’s farm in southern Illinois and has since made a name for herself in the business and financial world, working as an executive at ICE, the Atlanta financial markets giant that owns the New York Stock Exchange.
This past year, she launched a new regulated bitcoin exchange, a subsidiary of ICE called Bakkt as chief executive. Loeffler’s husband, Jeff Sprecher, is the founder of ICE and stood next to her at the press conference.
“Picking Kelly Loeffler is a bold choice. Gov. Kemp made a maverick move by the entire selection process, having people apply for the position,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
She said the choice was made with “an eye towards demographics,” given the Georgia Republican party’s mostly white, male leadership. Also, she said, it was a significant political choice.
“He’s defying President Trump, and so it takes a certain degree of courage to think long-term about how Gov. Kemp wants to help shape party politics in this state and how he wants to keep the Republican brand viable in a state that’s undergoing rapid demographic change,” she said. “This could be the start of other Republicans feeling more comfortable in picking battles with President Trump and standing up to him and opposing him on certain matters and certain issues.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said he’s confident that Loeffler will be able to fill the shoes left by Isakson, who’s served in the Senate for 15 years. Carr previously served as Isakson’s chief of staff.
Loeffler said she’s been “called soft-spoken, but I’ve also been called a lot worse. 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.”
Carr pointed out that Isakson, too, is known for being soft-spoken.
“You hear from Kelly: she said ‘I’m soft-spoken,’” Carr said. “Her background in business where you have to bring people together to get a successful outcome will serve her just like it served Johnny Isakson for over 40 years in politics.”