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When GOP Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday tapped Kelly Loeffler for Georgia’s soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat, it seemed a notable act of rebellion. President Donald Trump and many of his allies had lobbied for the appointment of conservative Rep. Doug Collins, one of the president’s staunchest defenders on impeachment.
Ms. Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman and prominent GOP fundraiser who hails from the Atlanta suburbs, is a political novice who’d donated a sizable sum to try to elect Mitt Romney to the White House in 2012. Many ardent Trump supporters who helped Governor Kemp beat Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Republican primary last year viewed the pick as a slap in the face.
The appointment comes at a time when the president has been urging Republican unity against the Democratic impeachment push in the House. But it underscores a pressing political reality for Republicans in Georgia and other parts of the South: the need to win back suburban voters – particularly women – who have been moving into the Democratic column, giving certain once-red states a decidedly purple hue.
“Georgia is more competitive than Ohio was in 2016,” says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock III.
When Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp began looking for a replacement for Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is resigning for health reasons at the end of the year, Trump allies quickly made their wishes known.
Conservatives such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Donald Trump Jr. lobbied openly for the appointment of Rep. Doug Collins, one of the president’s staunchest defenders on impeachment. President Donald Trump himself made the case for Congressman Collins, who represents a rural Republican district in the northeastern part of the state, in a White House meeting with the governor.
So it seemed a notable act of rebellion when Governor Kemp on Wednesday tapped Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman and prominent GOP fundraiser who hails from the Atlanta suburbs, for the seat.
The move has come at a time when the president has been urging Republican unity against the Democratic impeachment push in the House. But it underscores a pressing political reality for Republicans in Georgia and other parts of the South: the need to win back suburban voters – particularly women – who have been moving into the Democratic column, giving certain once-red states a decidedly purple hue.
“Georgia is more competitive than Ohio was in 2016,” says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock III. Suburban women “are a group that is in play, and you have to look pretty long and hard to find women in leadership positions in the Republican Party, in elected statewide offices. So this would be a very, very high-profile position being held by a woman.”
The scene of recent Democratic heartbreak, Georgia is likely to be the only state with two U.S. Senate races on the ballot in 2020. The 7th Congressional District, spanning the north Atlanta suburbs, is in play after Rep. Rob Woodall announced his retirement only months after squeaking by with fewer than 1,000 votes. And recent polls suggest that Mr. Trump could face greater head winds in Georgia, a state he won by 5 points in 2016.
“It will be competitive here,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
Central to Georgia’s purpling are its booming suburbs, from Chatham County on the coast to Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta. A once-solid Republican enclave, Gwinnett has gone from a clear white majority in the 1980s to majority-minority status today, with white voters now making up 37% of the population.
As the suburbs have diversified, their politics have shifted accordingly. The 6th Congressional District, northwest of Atlanta, was comfortably Republican until 2017, when a special election there became the most expensive House race in history. Last year, the district’s GOP incumbent was defeated by Democrat Lucy McBath, an African American gun-control activist whose son was killed after a dispute over loud music.
“If you look at the compositional change in the South, it’s overwhelmingly favorable to minorities, younger voters, and in-migrants, which is horrible for the GOP,” says Texas Tech political scientist Seth McKee, author of “Republican Ascendancy in Southern U.S. House Elections.”
Last year’s gubernatorial race between Mr. Kemp and Stacey Abrams, an African American lawyer who served as minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives, was the closest the state had seen in more than half a century. Ms. Abrams lost by 55,000 votes – but 300,000 new voters have registered since then.
And most of those new voters don’t hail from the country, polling experts point out.
“There’s this big debate about how Democrats don’t win that many counties because they tend to self-sort themselves into urban areas,” says J. Miles Coleman, an associate at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “It’s kind of reversed in Georgia and Texas: The Republicans have basically maxed out their share in the rural areas.”
Mr. Kemp appears to be taking those demographic changes seriously.
As a candidate, he ran a Trump-like campaign, posing in ads with a truck and a rifle, and promising to personally deport “criminal illegals.” Directly after taking office, he signed a controversial abortion bill that threatened the state’s booming film industry. (That bill is currently blocked in the courts from taking effect.)
But in the past few months, he has surprised some observers by appointing a number of minorities and women, including three people from the LGBTQ community, to key state positions.
His latest nod to the suburbs comes only weeks after Virginia Democrats took full control of the state legislature there for the first time in more than two decades, while Kentucky voters sent a Democrat to the governor’s mansion, and Louisiana voters returned Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to Baton Rouge.
Mr. Coleman grew up in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood, the heart of Louisiana’s Republican Party. In 2003, GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal won the neighborhood by a 3-to-1 margin. Last month, Mr. Edwards, a centrist Democrat who opposes abortion rights, carried 58% of the Lakeview vote.
“It’s crazy to me, growing up with these people, that the most Republican parts of [key Southern states] are basically swing regions now,” says Mr. Coleman.
Encouraging for Republicans, a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found that Mr. Trump has continued to consolidate his base, with 87% of Georgia Republicans feeling favorably toward the president.
But the same poll also found that 60% of right-leaning independents disapprove of Mr. Trump’s job performance.
Ms. Loeffler, a chief executive with the Intercontinental Exchange, which runs the New York Stock Exchange, and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s basketball team, is a political novice but has expressed interest in elected office before. Some Georgia conservatives have worried, given a $750,000 donation to Mitt Romney’s 2012 PAC, that her politics leaned more toward the center than the right.
At a news conference at the state capitol, Mr. Kemp compared her to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, saying both were “smart, accomplished, and savvy.” Both he and Ms. Loeffler underscored their support for Mr. Trump, with Ms. Loeffler pointedly describing herself as “pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-Trump, and pro-wall.”
She also said she plans to spend $20 million of her own money to win next year’s special election for the seat.
Still, for many ardent Trump supporters who helped Mr. Kemp beat Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Republican primary, the Loeffler pick is a slap in the face.
“Kemp is betraying us,” says Debbie Dooley, president of the Atlanta Tea Party, who lives in Gwinnett County. “This is a different time from where we sucked it up and voted for the lesser of two evils. And if you betray and ignore the people who got you elected and think they’ll still be there and vote with you, you are making a tremendous mistake.”
Depending on how deeply such views are held, it could presage a growing divide within the Republican Party throughout the state, one that could have electoral consequences.
“Worst case for Republicans is if Doug Collins or multiple male Republicans also decide to run [against Ms. Loeffler] in the special election next November, and then those who supported the losing Republican ... don’t come back to vote in the general election,” says Mr. Bullock of the University of Georgia. “If you look at history, the point at which Republicans were first making gains in Georgia was because Democrats were so busy fighting among themselves that they allowed the Republicans to slip by. That could happen again with a scenario like this.”