MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
There's a political food fight brewing among Republicans over a U.S. Senate seat. Georgia's governor is set to announce tomorrow a replacement for Senator Johnny Isakson. Isakson is stepping down early for health reasons. Reporter Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta joins us to explain the choice to succeed him and why it is so controversial.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: So tell me who the governor is tapping.
HURT: I've confirmed that he's going to announce Kelly Loeffler. She's a business executive here in Georgia. And it's gotten pretty controversial for two big reasons. The first is that President Trump and many of his allies really wanted Kemp to pick Congressman Doug Collins for the seat. And they've made that very, very clear. He's the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee and a loud Trump defender in the impeachment inquiry.
HURT: And secondly, because Loeffler's never held office, she doesn't have a voting record. And some Republicans are worried she could be more moderate than where much of the party is right now, so Governor Kemp's been getting flack on both angles for this decision. Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida actually just called it today the, quote, "funeral of Kemp's political career."
HURT: And Sean Hannity was on Fox News last night talking about it.
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SEAN HANNITY: I don't know why the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, is appointing what appears to be an untested, big Republican Romney donor described by many as a RINO (ph).
HURT: RINO, of course, meaning Republican in name only.
KELLY: Republican in name only, right. I will just pause for a moment just to stress the name that you've just given us because it's a new one. Loeffler is spelled L-O-E-F-F-L-E-R. She is the appointee. How is Governor Kemp responding to this criticism?
HURT: So amid all this criticism, as it started to brew, Kemp fired back on Twitter. And he said basically the idea that he would appoint someone without the conservative, anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment positions that he has is ridiculous and that he, quote, "could care less" what the political establishment thinks. And this is particularly dramatic just because of the context. To this point, Kemp and Trump have been considered very close. Kemp arguably wouldn't be governor if Trump hadn't endorsed him in the primary last year, so this is a pretty public rift among Republicans.
KELLY: And tell me a little bit more about Loeffler herself, what her views are, whether Republicans are right to be worried about any of her views.
HURT: Loeffler and her husband were Romney supporters, as Sean Hannity alluded to. But per my reporting, she is, in fact, very conservative. She's a self-described lifelong Republican, a big Republican donor. Her name was floated in 2013 for the Senate. She rejected at that point to stay in business, where she's been known. She grew up in rural Illinois, working on her family's corn and soybean farm and worked her way up the corporate ladder in the financial world for a big financial giant in Atlanta called ICE, which actually owns the New York Stock Exchange. Right now she runs a new subsidiary of ICE's called Bakkt, which is a Bitcoin exchange. And she's also the co-owner of a WNBA team - the Atlanta Dream. She played basketball in high school.
KELLY: Yeah. Do we know why Governor Kemp likes her - likes her enough that he is picking her above the apparent objections of President Trump?
HURT: So there are a few things going on here. Governor Kemp has made it clear he values business experience. It's what he talks about. It's what he highlights about himself on the campaign trail, what he has highlighted about other appointments he's made. And Loeffler has that in spades, climbing the ladder in the corporate world, working on her family's farm. She's also a political outsider, which, in the age of Trump, has appeal for Republicans. Also, Georgia Republicans really need women on their ticket. All the statewide elected officials are men. And Kemp only won his race by just 55,000 votes, so he's probably thinking about how to broaden the party's appeal in the future. And lastly, money - Loeffler and her husband have a lot of it. And this is going to be expensive. She's going to have to put together a statewide campaign super fast. The seat's up for election in November. And then again, it'll be up for election in 2022 because of Isakson's seat schedule.
KELLY: All right. That is political reporter Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta.
Thank you, Emma.
HURT: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.