OPINION — When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to fill the Senate seat of the beloved-but-ailing Sen. Johnny Isakson, a single headline said it all, repeated many times over. “Who is Kelly Loeffler?” the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the local NBC affiliate, and Atlanta’s NPR station asked almost in unison.
Loeffler, 49, was such an unknown outside of Republican fundraising circles that even longtime political reporters struggled with the pronunciation of her last name. Was it LOFF-ler or LOW-fler? (Neither. It’s LEFF-ler.)
In the month since Loeffler was named by Kemp, Georgians have mostly learned three things about their new senator. First, as she has stressed in all of her public appearances, Loeffler grew up on her family’s corn and soybean farm in Illinois. Second, she is conservative. On the day she was appointed, Loeffler declared herself “pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-Wall and pro-Trump.” Third, she is very, very rich.
Loeffler is so wealthy, in fact that she is likely to become the richest member of Congress the moment she is sworn in Monday. (The Wall Street Journal estimates that Jeff Sprecher, Loeffler’s husband, owns more than $500 million in shares of the company he leads where she also worked, InterContinental Exchange Inc.)
But the most important question about Kelly Loeffler has no answer yet — whether Kemp’s decision to appoint a little-known, but very wealthy, conservative woman can stop the bleeding for GOP candidates in Atlanta’s crucial northern suburbs in the 2020 elections.
As the educated, professional women in those suburbs have bolted the Republican party in protest of President Donald Trump, Democrats like Rep. Lucy McBath and others have won in areas dominated by the GOP just five years ago. Kemp is hoping that putting a similarly educated, professional woman like Loeffler on the ticket will give those women a reason to come back home.
The need was obvious, but full credit goes to Kemp for recognizing it and trying to address it where others refused to.
In 2016, with Trump at the top of the ticket, Hillary Clinton won the longtime GOP strongholds of Cobb and Gwinnett counties in suburban Atlanta, where old farms have been plowed over for subdivisions with two-income households and drive-thru Starbucks.
Republican losses deepened in the 2018 midterms, when six out of 10 suburban Georgia women chose Democrats in House races.
Those numbers made picking a woman an obvious move, and Kemp had no shortage of seasoned, better-known candidates to choose from, including Jackie Gingrich Cushman (the daughter of Newt, but a longtime Republican leading voice herself), as well as Martha Zoller, the powerful conservative radio host and a former staffer for Sen. David Perdue.
Both women have been sounding the alarms about the GOP’s suburban slide for years.
“It’s about who I call ‘squishy Republicans,’ college-educated, mostly Republican women who voted with us for 15 years, and then voted for Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams, and then Karen Handel and Lucy McBath,” Zoeller told me. “They have to feel comfortable with who they are voting for, and in many ways, Kelly Loeffler is that woman.”
Cushman pointed to polling last fall that showed the widening gender gap in the Atlanta suburbs, driven mostly by women’s disapproval of Trump.
“I would say that’s because of Trump’s tenor and his tone, and not because of his results, but it’s very hard to separate those,” she said. “Most suburban women are moms who spend a lot of time in carpools talking to their kids about tenor and tone.”
Zoller and Cushman both put their names forward to Kemp for the Isakson opening when the governor took the unusual step of creating a public application process for the job.
Both would have made solid senators and great candidates for the GOP.
But Loeffler had one thing going for her that others did not — she is absolutely, filthy rich.
“The thing I don’t have that she does have is $20 million, to be perfectly frank,” Cushman said. “I think she could be spectacular, but she has to get her feet under her. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
To Cushman’s point, before Loeffler was appointed, she had already given $75,000 to the Republican National Committee this cycle, along with hundreds of thousands of past donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee, House and Senate members including Perdue and Isakson, and $750,000 to Mitt Romney’s presidential super PAC.
Loeffler’s team has also made it known she’s prepared to spend $20 million of her own money for the 2020 cycle alone and will also likely have a super PAC waiting in the wings to spend much more.
That’s an especially helpful attribute for someone like Kemp, who will need to raise tens of millions of dollars for his own reelection in 2022 from many of the same donors who would otherwise be supporting the 2022 Senate candidate too, when the Isakson/Loeffler seat will be up again for its regular election cycle.
But to get to 2022, Loeffler has an enormous amount of work to do between now and then.
One of her first Senate votes will be on Trump’s impeachment, which she has already called a distraction and a left-wing “sham.” (Count her as a “no.”)
And she’ll need to thread the needle of winning over Republicans who don’t yet know her, along with a majority of independents, to win the “jungle” general election in 2020 with the always unpredictable Trump at the top of the ticket.
Zoeller said the more voters get to know Loeffler, the more they’ll warm to her, pointing to the time both Loeffler and her husband reached out to Zoeller after her own brother died suddenly.
“They’re both very warm and friendly,” she said. “They didn’t have to do that and it meant a lot to me. It speaks to the kind of people they are.”
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.