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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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Ebenezer Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock enters Georgia U.S. Senate special election

Warnock gets an early boost from Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a governor’s race in 2018

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

ATLANTA — Atlanta pastor Ralphael Warnock, who holds the historic pulpit where both Martin Luther King Jr. and his father preached, has entered the special election race for a U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, giving Democrats a high-profile candidate for a seat they have high hopes of flipping.

“I’ve committed my whole life to service and helping people realize their highest potential,” he said in a video announcing his campaign. “I’ve always thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door — that’s actually where it starts.”

U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia

Warnock’s campaign launch came with a full-throated endorsement from Stacey Abrams, who energized Democrats nationally in a unsuccessful race for governor in 2018.

“Wherever there is need, Reverend Warnock can be found on the front lines,” Abrams said in a letter sent to her supporters. “And that’s where we need him at this moment. On the front lines of the battle for the soul of America.”

Since 2005, Warnock has been senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, from which King helped lead the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Senate race is his first run for political office.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate seat in December by Governor Brian Kemp to replace Republican Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health. Georgia voters will decide in November who fills the remaining two years of Isakson’s term; candidates from all parties will run in a special election, with the top two voter-getters facing each other in a runoff if no one gets a majority.

Warnock’s entry into the race further complicates Loeffler’s effort to hold the seat. She is already facing an intra-party challenge from U.S. Rep. Doug Colllins, who was passed over by Kemp when he filled the Senate vacancy.

Four other candidates will be competing with Warnock for Democratic votes: Matt Lieberman, a businessman from Cobb County and son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman; Ed Tarver, a former state senator and federal prosecutor from Augusta; Richard Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia; and Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a nail salon owner and law student from DeKalb County.

The next wrinkle in the Senate race may take place in the Georgia legislature, where Collins supporters — with the backing of Democrats — are trying to push through a change in state law to hold party primaries instead of an all-parties special election, setting up a one-on-one match-up between Collins and Loeffler in a Republican-only electorate.

The change would also ensure that a Democrat would get a clean shot at either Loeffler or Collins, rather than battling them both.

Kemp has threatened to veto the bill. However, House Democrats have indicated they may support the change, which could create a veto-proof majority with just 45 out of the 104 Republicans in the House.

Georgia’s other Senate seat, held by Republican David Perdue, is also up in 2020. And while Georgians haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 2000, the two Georgia seats could be key to Democrat’s hopes of overturning the GOP’s three-seat majority.

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Georgia U.S. Rep. Doug Collins gets into U.S. Senate race, igniting GOP squabble

Trump champion will challenge Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat in December

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Colllins, one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress, will run in a November special election against the state’s newly minted U.S. senator, Kelly Loeffler, defying the man who appointed her, Governor Brian Kemp, and triggering an intra-party squabble with potential implications for Senate control.

“We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president, keep him working for the people of Georgia,” Collins said in a Wednesday morning appearance on “Fox & Friends” where he confirmed his candidacy. “We just need to have a process that let’s the people decide. Let them choose for themselves how they want to see this vision.”

In December, Kemp appointed Loeffler, a wealthy Atlanta business executive who had not previously held political office, to the seat vacated by veteran Republican Johnny Isakson, rebuffing furious lobbying by conservatives who preferred Collins, a Gainesville Republican serving his fourth term in the House who has led the charge against Trump’s impeachment as ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, announces Senate bid on “Fox & Friends” (From Fox News Channel)

The question that will now hang over the race is whether Trump will buck Kemp and the Senate Republican establishment and endorse Collins over Loeffler, the incumbent. The president was reportedly cool to Loeffler’s appointment before it was made, although he has since singled her out for praise.

Asked if he expected Trump’s support, Collins said, “I think that’s up the president.”

Even with Trump’s support, Collins will have to battle against what is likely to be Loeffler’s significant financial advantage. He starts the race with less than $1.4 million in his campaign account, while she is expected to tap $20 million from her own fortune for the campaign.

Collins decision to run against Loeffler immediate drew fire from the Senate Republicans’ campaign organization and a political action committee allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The shortsightedness in this decision is stunning,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement. “Doug Collins’ selfishness will hurt (Georgia U.S. Senator) David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and President Trump. Not to mention the people of Georgia who stand to bear the burden of it for years to come. All he has done is put two senate seats, multiple house seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play.”

“It’s so selfish of Doug Collins to be promoting himself when President Trump needs a unified team and Senator Loeffler is such a warrior for the President,” said Steven Law, president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, in a statement. “As we’ve said before, Senator Loeffler is an outsider like Trump, not just another D.C. politician. We’ll have her back if she needs us.”

Collins fired right back on Twitter, employing one of Trump’s favorite phrases to deride McLaughlin’s comments: “This is FAKE NEWS coming from the head of a Washington-based group whose bylaws require him to support all incumbents, even unelected ones.”

In addition to Loeffler’s seat, Perdue is also up for election in 2020. The two Republican-held seats in Georgia will be key in Democratic efforts to overturn the GOP’s three-seat Senate majority.

The next act in the Collins-Loeffler race may take place in the Georgia legislature, where Collins supporters — with the backing of Democrats — may try to change the rules governing the November special election to his advantage.

As state law now stands, candidates from all parties will run in November, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a runoff if no one gets a majority. However, some Republicans in the House, with the support of Speaker David Ralston, are pushing to create regular party primaries for seat, which would set up a one-on-one match-up between Collins and Loeffler in a Republican-only electorate.

Kemp has threatened to veto the bill. However, House Democrats have indicated they may support the change, which could create a veto-proof majority with just 45 out of the 104 Republicans in the House.

In addition to possibly helping Collins, a party primary would ensure that a Democrat would get a clean shot at either Loeffler or Collins, rather than battling them both.

Democrats, not surprisingly, were gleeful about Collins’s decision to enter the race and upset Kemp’s best-laid plans.

“This expensive, protracted brawl — already playing out on the front page — will force unelected mega-donor Senator Loeffler and Trump ally Congressman Collins into a race to the right that reveals just how out-of-touch both are with Georgia voters,” said Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement.

Four Democrats have already gotten into the race against Loeffler, including Matt Lieberman, a businessman from Cobb County and son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman; Ed Tarver, a former state senator and federal prosecutor from Augusta; Richard Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia; and Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a nail salon owner and law student from DeKalb County.

Raphael Warnock, the high-profile senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, is also expected to join the race.

Collins, 53, was a lawyer and Baptist pastor before being elected to Congress in 2012. He is also a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force reserves.

His 9th District, which covers the state’s northeastern corner, is heavily Republican and is likely to stay in GOP hands after his departure, though his pursuit of the Senate will likely trigger a competitive primary in the five weeks remaining before the filing deadline.

Before being appointed to the Senate, Loeffler, 49, worked as an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange; she is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the company’s founder and CEO.

Loeffler is also co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, which she purchased with a partner in 2010.

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Georgia’s new Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler takes oath of office

Loeffler, appointed by Governor Brian Kemp, will have to defend her seat in November special election

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

ATLANTA (CFP) — Kelly Loeffler, a multi-millionaire Atlanta finance executive and Republican mega-donor who co-owns the city’s WNBA franchise, is now officially Georgia’s newest U.S. Senator.

Loeffler (pronouced LEFF-ler) took the oath of office from Vice President Mike Pence on January 6 to replace Johnny Isakson, a veteran GOP lawmaker who resigned his seat due to declining health.

She will seek the remaining two years of Isakson’s term in a special election in November.

Loeffler is sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence (From C-SPAN)

Loeffler, who has no previous elected political experience, was picked for the Senate seat by Republican Governor Brian Kemp in December after a public, two-month search in which he accepted applications from more than 500 would-be senators.

She joins the Senate just in time to participate in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

Loeffler’s appointment had initially received a lukewarm reception from the White House and vocal opposition from some of Trump’s most fervent partisans, although that opposition has dissipated over the past month as Loeffler held a series of private meetings with conservative activists around the state.

Loeffler, 50, will become just the second woman to represent the Peach State in the Senate; the first, Rebecca Felton, was appointed to serve a single day back in 1922.

In addition to bringing gender diversity and an outsider persona to the GOP ticket, Loeffler will also be able to tap her personal fortune for the special election, in which candidates from all parties run against each other, with a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one wins a majority.

Among the applicants passed over by Kemp was U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the House who has said he may challenge Loeffler in the special election. A Collins run could pit the president against Kemp, who won the governorship in 2018 after Trump backed him in the GOP primary.

So far, only one Democrat has entered the special election race — Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000.

Georgia’s other U.S. Senate seat will also be on the ballot in 2020, with Republican incumbent David Perdue trying to fend off a field of Democratic challengers.

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Atlanta finance executive Kelly Loeffler picked for Georgia U.S. Senate seat

Governor Brian Kemp picks Loeffler for vacancy over objections of Trump partisans

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

ATLANTA (CFP) — Kelly Loeffler, a multi-millionaire Atlanta finance executive and Republican mega-donor who co-owns the city’s WNBA franchise, will fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson.

Loeffler’s appointment to the Senate seat was announced by Governor Brian Kemp on December 4, despite a lukewarm reception of the idea at the White House and vocal opposition from some of President Donald Trump’s most fervent partisans.

She will seek the remaining two years of Isakson’s term in a special election in November.

Kelly Loeffler introduced as Georgia’s new U.S. Senator (From 11Alive via YouTube)

Taking direct aim at the opposition to her appointment, Loeffler (pronouced LEFF-ler) described herself as a “lifelong conservative” who is pro-life, “pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.”

“I make no apologies for my conservative values, and I look forward to supporting President Trump’s conservative justices,” she said.

In his introduction, Kemp described Loeffler as a “conservative businesswoman and political outsider.”

“Like our president, Kelly is ready to take on the status quo, the politically correct and the special interests,” Kemp said.  “She knows that Washington is fundamentally broken. She knows that we need to drain the swamp.”

Kemp picked Loeffler after a public, two-month search in which he accepted applications from more than 500 would-be senators. She was among the last to apply.

Kemp conceded that his approach was “unorthodox” but said he went into the search with “no favors to repay and no intention of making any backroom deals.”

Loeffler, 50, who had not previously sought elective office, will become just the second woman to represent the Peach State in the Senate; the first, Rebecca Felton, was appointed to serve a single day back in 1922.

In addition to bringing gender diversity and an outsider persona to the GOP ticket, Loeffler will also be able to tap her personal fortune for the special election, in which candidates from all parties run against each other, with a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one wins a majority.

Among the applicants passed over by Kemp was U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the House who, had he been appointed, would have become one of the president’s jurors in the looming Senate impeachment trial.

Kemp’s decision to choose Loeffler over Collins has been met with disdain by some of the president’s more vocal supporters, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, a one-time Atlantan who has been urging his followers to contact the governor to voice support for Collins.

Chief among the factors giving Trump supporters pause: In 2012, Loeffler gave $750,000 to a super PAC supporting the presidential candidacy of Utah U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, who has been one of the few voices in the Senate to offer criticism of the president.

Kemp took Loeffler to the White House to meet Trump before he announced her as his pick, a meeting that was reportedly tense and brief.

Collins has said he might run for the Senate in the special election against Loeffler, a race that would pit the president against Kemp, who won the governorship in 2018 after Trump backed him in the GOP primary.

Loeffler is currently the chief executive officer of Bakkt, a bitcoin company that is a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. She is also co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, which she purchased with a partner in 2010.

Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is the founder and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange. The couple live in Tuxedo Park, one of Atlanta’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Isakson, 74, who has held the Senate seat since 2005, is retiring at the end of December due to health issues.

So far, only one Democrat has entered the special election race — Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000.

Georgia’s other U.S. Senate seat will also be on the ballot in 2020, with Republican incumbent David Perdue trying to fend off a field of Democratic challengers.

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