Despite objections from President Trump and a snarling reaction from Sean Hannity, the president’s confidant and attack dog, Governor Brian Kemp has named Kelly Loeffler to the Senate seat that Johnny Isakson will vacate at the end of the month. The president and conservative voices hoped to see Ninth District Congressman Doug Collins elevated to the Senate. Collins had been considered to be among the most viable of 500 contenders who submitted applications for the position. He made no secret of his eagerness to move to the upper chamber.
Collins, the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee, has become the president’s most vocal and visible supporter in the impeachment slug fest playing out there. Collins has represented northeast Georgia in Congress since 2012, prior to which he served three terms in the Georgia House. He has both a law degree and a masters of divinity and was the pastor of a Baptist Church for more than a decade prior to his tenure as an officeholder.
In contrast, Loeffler has not held nor has she sought public office. Having earned an MBA, Loeffler has spent a career working in the finance industry. Currently she serves as CEO of Bakkt, a bitcoin trading company. She and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, have prospered as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have contributed to GOP candidates although not to the 2016 Trump campaign. Loeffler, a one-time basketball player, is living out a sport’s lover’s dream as part owner of the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA.
In breaking with the president and going with the rookie, Kemp shows an eagerness to widen the footprint of Georgia’s Republican Party, an effort launched with diverse appointments to the bench and boards. To put these choices in the context, Georgia’s stereotypical Republican officeholder today looks a lot like the Democratic official of the past – a white male. Ever since Karen Handel stepped down as secretary of state to run for governor, an all-male team has filled statewide partisan offices. The GOP secured a majority in the state’s congressional delegation in 1994. During the last quarter century, Handel has been the only Republican congresswoman and she served less than a full term. Women have also been scarce in the ranks of GOP state legislators, so scarce that when Loeffler gets to Washington, the number of Republican women representing Georgia in the US Senate will be half the number of Republican women in Georgia’s state Senate.
Loeffler will get careful scrutiny as a fundraiser, candidate and for the votes she casts as a senator. Her most demanding test will come next fall when she competes in a jungle primary for the last two years of Isakson’s term. If the survives that challenge, she will have to run again in 2022 for a full six-year term.
Assuming that she holds off challengers next fall, she will be atop the 2022 ticket and that may help Kemp as he seeks reelection. Having a woman lead the GOP slate could make the party more appealing to a key swing group. White men give 70 – 80% of their votes to Republicans while minorities strongly support Democrats. White women, especially those who are better educated and live in the suburbs, hold the balance in a close Georgia contest.
As Kemp looks toward 2022, he probably has concerns. The heavy emphasis his 2018 campaign gave to rural Georgia produced a margin of less than 55,000 votes. He lost the youth vote, the minority vote, and urban areas. The Fox exit poll showed him with 22% of the urban vote and the backing of only 38% of suburban women. The components of the electorate that Kemp lost will be even larger in 2022. The age group with whom he did best, those over 65, three-fifths of whom voted for him, will be less numerous. White, Evangelical voters, the most loyal Republicans (about 90% of this group backed Kemp), may also be decreasing as a share of the electorate. The Fox exit poll found white Evangelicals cast only 26% of the vote which seems too low. A competing exit poll sponsored by a conglomerate of media outlets reported white Evangelicals as 35% of the 2018 electorate, down four percentage points from 2014.
The racial and ethnic composition of Georgia’s electorate is another dimension that is gradually shifting in favor of Democrats. In 1996, white voters cast more than three-fourths of the ballots. In 2018, about three-fourths of the white vote went to Kemp, but the white share of the electorate slipped below 60 percent.
For a number of years most Georgia voters have lived in metro Atlanta. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by almost 200,000 votes in the 29-county Atlanta metro area. Stacey Abrams did even better drawing 322,000 more votes than Kemp in these counties. Gwinnett and Cobb ended decades of voting for Republicans and narrowly supported Clinton. In 2018 both of these counties saw Abrams improve on Clinton’s vote share by more than five percentage points. Democratic margins in the second and third most populous counties will likely be even greater in 2022.
The problems for Republicans in the vote-rich environs of the north Atlanta suburbs are visible below the gubernatorial and presidential level. It is in this area where Lucy McBath unseated Karen Handel and Rob Woodall came within 433 votes of losing to Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux. Metro Atlanta also saw Democrats gain fourteen seats in the state House and a pair in the Senate in 2018. Looking to 2020, there are another ten House seats and three Senate seats in the Atlanta region that Republicans retained in 2018 with less than 60 percent of the vote. Democrats will target these as they try to flip 16 seats and secure a majority in the state House.
Tapping Kelly Loeffler as Isakson’s replacement will not inoculate Republicans from all the challenges of a younger, more diverse and more urbanized electorate. But her presence on the November ticket in 2020 and 2022, assuming that she fends off challenges in the jungle primary, may help the GOP attract larger shares of the critical white, female vote.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author of The South and the Transformation of U.S. Politics.