Why the Intra-GOP Fight over a Georgia Senate Seat Matters

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Governor Brian Kemp’s defiance of President Trump and pro-life groups could make a big difference in the tight race for control of the Senate next year.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, an intra-Republican fight broke out over who will sit in the Senate seat set to open up at the end of the month when incumbent Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson retires.

Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, intends to appoint Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team. That Sunday, Kemp took Loeffler to meet President Trump at the White House, but Trump remained adamant that he wanted Kemp to appoint Georgia congressman Doug Collins to the seat.

The political backdrop to the fight between Trump and Kemp is this: Trump believes Collins would be an effective attack dog during the upcoming impeachment trial. But Kemp only carried Georgia 50.2 percent to 48.8 percent in 2018. He signed a heartbeat-abortion ban into law in 2019, and appointing a businesswoman instead of an attack dog could help shore up his support in the suburbs ahead of a 2022 reelection campaign while keeping the Senate seat in Republican hands in 2020.

The day before Thanksgiving, a new front opened up in the fight when some national pro-life groups, including the Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life Action, announced their opposition to Loeffler. In the past, the businesswoman’s political donations have gone mostly, but not entirely, to pro-life Republicans — she donated $2,000 to Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow in 2011, and the WNBA has given money to Planned Parenthood. But the greatest concern for pro-life groups was that she sits on the board of Grady Memorial Hospital.

“Kelly Loeffler should be disqualified as a GA Senate appointment. She’s on the board of Grady Memorial Hospital, largest abortion provider in the state. Grady is an abortionist training hub. Its doctors are leading advocates AGAINST @BrianKempGA pro-life laws,” Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List tweeted.

Kemp responded on Twitter: “I stand with hardworking Georgians and @POTUS. The idea that I would appoint someone to the U.S. Senate that is NOT pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-freedom, and 100% supportive of our President (and his plan to Keep America Great) is ridiculous.”

Grady then told reporters that it does not perform “elective abortions,” and Georgia-based conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote on December 2 that he had “been told by multiple people that Loeffler is a devout, pro-life Catholic with a worldview that reflects that. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the Georgia Life Alliance, tells National Review that he trusts Kemp to select a solid pro-life senator, but he also doesn’t fault national pro-life groups for raising concerns about Loeffler.

“We’ve had every reason to trust the governor’s judgment on the pro-life issue here in Georgia,” Edmonds says, pointing to Kemp’s record signing Georgia’s heartbeat abortion ban into law. But for pro-life groups “to chime in one way or another with their concerns or preferences isn’t necessarily an issue of D.C. trying to bully Georgia,” he says. “They’re speaking out from a trust-but-verify perspective.”

Edmonds says the national groups are raising Loeffler’s affiliation with Grady based on the “concern that [she] might have connection to the larger abortion industry here in Georgia, which sort of has veiled and unclear connections” across the health-care system. Grady Health hasn’t defined what it means by “medically necessary” abortions, which makes pro-lifers nervous. “We know that abortions take place at every hospital. I would be interested to know how they are defining that term ‘elective abortion,’” says Edmonds.

Grady spokeswoman Denise Simpson told National Review on Monday that elective abortions are not performed at the hospital but she would need to “research exactly what the policy calls for.” Simpson wasn’t able to offer greater clarity in a follow-up Tuesday morning.

“Grady is the large public safety-net hospital for Fulton and Dekalb County. We are also a teaching hospital. So we are staffed by the Emory School of Medicine and the Morehouse School of Medicine,” Simpson said.

Edmonds notes that “Emory has been a particular adversary to the pro-life community. They’ve come out in opposition to a lot of our pregnancy-help organizations” as well as the heartbeat-abortion ban.

But to what degree does Loeffler, an unpaid member of Grady’s board, really bear blame for the hospital’s precise policy on abortion? “You should feel a responsibility, it’s not just to benefit your resume,” says Tom McClusky of March for Life Action. He looks at the Georgia Senate appointment the “same way I look at a Republican with a Supreme Court nomination: There’s no room for question marks anymore.” Loeffler “might come up here and be fantastic,” he adds, “but right now everything points in the opposite direction.”

There are two reasons doubts linger around Loeffler: She doesn’t have any voting record as an elected official, and she hasn’t given any interviews since the fight over her likely Senate appointment burst into public view one week ago. Kemp’s office declined to connect National Review with Loeffler, and a spokesperson for the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that Loeffler partially owns, also declined to make her available for an interview.

Collins has refused to rule out challenging Loeffler in Georgia’s 2020 “jungle primary,” so she is expected to get to work shoring up her support among conservative and pro-life activists shortly after Kemp formally appoints her on Wednesday. A poor performance inviting a bruising 2020 primary wouldn’t merely have personal consequences for Loeffler: Republicans currently hold the Senate 53–47, and control of the upper chamber could hinge on a single race in 2020. Politicos across the spectrum will be keeping a close eye on Georgia in the coming months.

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