ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has decided to appoint a Republican donor and financial services executive for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by three-term Sen. Johnny Isakson, a GOP political consultant told The Associated Press on Monday.
His choice of Kelly Loeffler, a political newcomer, defies Republicans who had pushed him to choose Rep. Doug Collins, one of the staunchest defenders of President Donald Trump.
The consultant spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday because Kemp has yet to publicly announce the decision, which comes after weeks of speculation over his choice for a Senate seat Democrats are hoping to win in 2020.
Loeffler, perhaps best known as co-owner of the Atlanta Dream professional woman's basketball franchise, will have to defend the seat next November as Republicans battle to maintain control of the Senate and the White House.
By picking Loeffler, Kemp might have set up a bitter GOP clash over the seat, as Collins has publicly left open the door to running against her next year.
Loeffler is the CEO of financial services firm Bakkt, which offers a regulated market for Bitcoin. She was previously an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, a behemoth founded by her husband that owns the New York Stock Exchange. Bakkt is a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange.
In just about 10 more months, the seat goes to an open-to-all special election for the last two years of Isakson's term in November 2020. Also on the ballot will be Republican Sen. David Perdue, another vocal Trump defender. With both of Georgia's GOP-held Senate seats on the ballot alongside Trump in 2020, the race is raising the state's profile as a political battleground where Republicans still dominate but Democrats have made substantial inroads in recent elections.
In the event of a Loeffler victory in 2020, she would be the first woman elected to the Senate from Georgia.
But Democrats are hoping to capitalize on dissatisfaction with Washington, bidding to break the GOP's hold on the Deep South. They're spending big in Georgia on the hopes that continuing demographic changes that have left the state less rural and more diverse could help them deliver an upset in November. The Atlanta suburbs are the biggest target as they have trended more Democratic since Trump's election.
Collins would have brought instant name recognition and a ready-built campaign coffer to the race. Kemp instead continued his track record of appointing a diverse slate of candidates to state boards and judicial posts that has been an unexpected hallmark of his first year in office.
Democrat Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, has announced a bid for the seat, and several other Democrats are mulling potential bids.
In September, Kemp took the unusual step of opening an online application process for the Senate seat and asked everyone from congressmen to ordinary Georgians to apply.
The governor's office was soon flooded with hundreds of applications. Many were sincere. Others, like one submitted for Kermit the Frog, were not.
Loeffler's submitted her application just hours before the online portal was closed, prompting speculation that she may have done so at Kemp's urging.
Other top Republicans who applied include Collins, former congressman Jack Kingston, state House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Andrew Taylor reported from Washington.