Collins Senate bid threatens to spark GOP rift in Georgia

Collins Senate bid threatens to spark GOP rift in Georgia
© Greg Nash

Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify House to vote Thursday on removing ERA ratification deadline Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE’s (R-Ga.) plan to challenge Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerProgressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE (R-Ga.) for her seat in a special election has set off a scramble among Georgia Republicans to head off a potentially damaging and protracted intraparty clash.

The anticipated election fight pits one of President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE’s closest House allies against a wealthy businesswoman who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) last month to fill former Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonProgressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE's seat with the hope of boosting the party's standing among the female and suburban voters who have fled the party in recent years.

For now, Loeffler has the support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Trump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Ky.). But Collins is hoping to launch his campaign with strong support from Trump’s allies and conservative activists, banking on lingering skepticism of Loeffler to power his Senate bid.

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That has raised concerns among several GOP officials and operatives in the state who fear that a rift may be opening up among Georgia Republicans at a time when Democrats are convinced they have momentum in the state after coming close to winning the governor's mansion in 2018 and flipping a key House seat in the Atlanta suburbs.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been something this close to potential civil war,” one longtime Republican operative in Georgia said. “I think it could absolutely damage the party for years to come because it’s not like the state is getting any redder.”

Loeffler hasn’t wasted any time campaigning. She’s already up on air with a $2.6 million ad buy introducing herself to voters in a state where she still remains relatively unknown. The latest ad spot in that campaign was unveiled on Tuesday, just hours after news of Collins’ planned entrance into the Senate race.

“My one-sentence analysis: This is why we can’t have nice things. My more serious analysis: Loeffler has Kemp plus NRSC in her corner and has reportedly said she will spend up to $20 million of her own money,” one GOP operative told The Hill.

Loeffler has also made an effort to lean into Trump just ahead of Collins’s anticipated announcement, attacking Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE (R-Utah) on Twitter for saying he was open to bringing in additional witnesses to testify as part of Trump's impeachment trial.

Whether Trump will put his thumb on the scale for either Loeffler or Collins is unclear. Asked on Tuesday whether the president has any plans to endorse in the Senate race, one GOP House member replied: "I don't think he does.”

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Kemp appointed Loeffler last year to fill out the rest of Isakson’s term after a months-long application process that saw hundreds of applicants throw their names into the running, including Collins.

Loeffler applied for the seat just under the Nov. 18 deadline, frustrating some Georgia Republicans who questioned whether the governor had chosen her even before she put in her application.

The appointment came even after Trump reportedly lobbied heavily for Collins — the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who played a key role in defending the president during the House’s impeachment inquiry and was selected to be part of the president’s impeachment defense team.

Under the state’s current rules, there will not be partisan primaries to determine the Republican and Democratic nominees in the November election.

Instead, candidates from all parties will appear on the same ballot – a process known as a jungle primary. If no candidate scores at least 50 percent of the vote, it will trigger a runoff election, currently slated for January 2021.

Loeffler, the multimillionaire CEO of an Atlanta-based financial services firm, likely has the advantage in a jungle primary. The election is still more than nine months away, giving Loeffler plenty of time to introduce herself to voters and grow her name recognition. She’s already planning to spend some $20 million of her personal fortune to finance her Senate bid, according to a person familiar with her plans.

But Collins’s allies in the Georgia legislature are moving to make Loeffler’s life more complicated. The state House Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday advanced a measure that would require Georgia to hold a partisan primary for Loeffler’s seat in May instead of the all-party jungle primary.

Kemp had hoped Loeffler would be an ideal candidate to advance past that November vote. But her chances in a Republican primary are shakier.

A recent poll conducted for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Collins was more widely known and more widely liked than Loeffler. Fifty-three percent of Georgia Republicans have a favorable impression of Collins, while 31 percent said the same of Loeffler.

The bill has caused a rift between Kemp, who has threatened a veto, and state House Speaker David Ralston (R), who opposed Kemp’s decision to appoint Loeffler to the Senate.

Collins, a former three-term member of the Georgia House of Representatives, is close with Ralston. Ralston invited Collins to give the opening prayer to Georgia legislators on Tuesday, hours after news about his potential bid to challenge Loeffler became public.

Ralston is likely to win some Democratic votes for the partisan primary bill. 

Several prominent Democrats are seeking the Senate seat, potentially splitting the party’s electorate in a November jungle primary and opening the possibility that two Republicans could advance to a runoff. The partisan primary in May would guarantee their eventual nominee a place on the general election ballot.

“It’s a more ideal situation than holding this insane jungle primary,” one state Democratic Party official said.

Democrats have yet to rally around a candidate for Loeffler’s seat. So far, three candidates have declared their campaigns for the seat: Matt Lieberman, a businessman and the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.); Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and Georgia state senator; and Richard Dien Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia.

But the number of candidates on the Democratic side is likely to grow. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, is expected to announce a bid for the Senate seat soon. If that happens, he would be the most prominent Democrat to enter the race so far.

In the meantime, Democrats are relishing the news of Collins’ expected entrance into the race, believing that it will force Republicans to spend months mired in an expensive and politically damaging intraparty fight.

“Regardless of which situation you end up with, either she’s spending nine months having to take crap from Collins…or she’s going to have to go head to head against him in a Republican primary with Republican voters,” the Democratic official said.

--Reid Wilson and Al Weaver contributed.