U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, (second from left) chats with Sens. Frank Ginn (left) and Butch Miller (right) on the floor of the Georgia Senate on March 3, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

Collins’ allies pressure Kemp to tap him to Senate seat - risking backfire

A flurry of tweets praising U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’ virtues. A leaked poll with glowing numbers for him. And a direct intervention on his behalf from President Donald Trump. 

After months of quiet jockeying for Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment to an open U.S. Senate seat, Collins’ allies have embarked on a full-scale campaign to pressure the Republican to reward one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the U.S. House.

The ramp-up seeks to force Kemp’s hand after a new favorite has emerged in the race for the coveted post: Kelly Loeffler, a financial executive and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, applied for the seat just before a Monday deadline.

Soon after, Collins told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s “strongly” considering a run for the U.S. Senate regardless. The same day, Trump called Kemp to urge him to appoint Collins – the second time the president has pushed the governor to do so in two weeks. 

The pressure seems likely to backfire. Kemp is a staunch Trump supporter who is mindful that the president’s endorsement helped him defeat a well-financed rival last year on his way to becoming governor. But he also bristles at the outside pressure and has urged contenders to give him space to make the decision. 

Kemp has also long said he wanted to tap an unconventional candidate – which, in Georgia Republican parlance, can be viewed as someone who isn’t a white male. Two other applicants said to be on the shortlist – Robyn Crittenden and Allen Poole – are African American members of his administration.

“The campaign to get Doug Collins in the Senate seat in Georgia all but ensures it won’t be him,” said Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator. “Governor Kemp will pick the person and doesn’t want to be seen as pressured into something.”

Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler cheers for the team during 2nd half action in the home opener at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Friday, May 25, 2012. Atlanta Dream won 100 - 74 over the New York Liberty. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

‘Second-guessing’

Collins’ supporters are willing to take the risk, hopeful against the odds that Trump’s prodding will win over Kemp. At worst, they figure, making public his threat to run just seeds the ground for a U.S. Senate bid against Kemp’s pick next year. 

That would be a messy affair. The special election to succeed Isakson – he’s retiring due to health reasons – will feature candidates from all parties on the same ballot. 

With no primary to hash out a nominee, it means Collins, Kemp’s pick and several Democrats would compete against each other in the general election - raising the possibility of a January 2021 runoff between the two top finalists.

Republican insiders have responded to Collins’ threat with a mix of emotions. 

Some fear Loeffler, a multimillionaire who is little known in the Georgia GOP, would struggle to energize grassroots conservatives. Others worry that a battle between a white man from North Georgia and a white woman from the suburbs could further alienate metro Atlanta moderates.

Still others have called for patience. Scott Johnson, a veteran activist, said Kemp has “earned the right to do this and with God’s help he will.” Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston offered a similar plea.

“I can’t imagine how difficult of a decision this is for the governor,” said Kingston, who ran for Senate in 2014 and recently applied to fill Isakson’s seat. 

“You’ve got friends, donors, national operatives, the president all calling,” Kingston said. “We should be praying for the governor – everybody in America is going to be second-guessing him.” 

November 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson speaks as GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp looks Monday evening just a day before the election day at Brian Kemp for Governor Headquarters in Buckhead on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Needed champ’

Almost as soon as Loeffler’s application landed, the push for Collins picked up steam. Donald Trump Jr. and other prominent figures in the president’s sphere posted messages of support on social media for the four-term congressman from Gainesville and dialed up operatives to push his candidacy. 

“I have stayed out of this, but now I am convinced that with the prospect of a long trial in the Senate in the offing, that the country is best served if Governor Kemp puts Doug Collins into the Senate,” said Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who would be in line to succeed Collins in a top House Judiciary Committee post, said he thought his friend would “be a great senator.” Another Trump loyalist, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, said Collins would be a “needed champ” to fight impeachment in the Senate. 

And a McLaughlin & Associates poll obtained by Politico quickly made the rounds. It showed that Collins’ name recognition topped 50% among likely GOP primary voters and that his favorable ratings soar when he’s presented as a top Trump defender.  

Georgia Democrats are relishing the drama. State party spokesman Alex Floyd mocked a process that "continues to backfire and spiral out of control." 

“No matter who Governor Kemp chooses to appoint to the Senate, it’s clear that his choice is bound to come with plenty of tension and internal division at a time when Georgia Republicans can least afford it,” he said.

Kingston, meanwhile, offered an alternative to Kemp's administration if his aides want to go back to the drawing board. 

“If the governor wants a proven conservative, electable pro-Trump candidate who has stood in the fire for the party and the cause, I’m ready.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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