President Donald Trump pressed Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday to appoint U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to an open U.S. Senate, hours after the Gainesville Republican said he was “strongly” considering a run for the job even if he’s not tapped.
The call, described by three high-level GOP officials, was part of a dramatic increase in pressure from Collins’ allies that raises the possibility of a bitter Republican clash over the race.
It's the second time in two weeks that Trump directly appealed Kemp to appoint Collins, who was long considered a top contender to fill U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's seat before a multimillionaire financial executive applied.
Kelly Loeffler submitted her application hours before the Monday deadline, apparently scrambling Collins' calculations. Loeffler, a financial executive who co-owns Atlanta's WNBA franchise, is widely considered by GOP insiders to be Kemp's favorite for the coveted post.
When Collins was pressed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier Wednesday about whether he was contemplating a bid for the office regardless of whether he’s selected, he confirmed his interest.
“In recent days and weeks, I’ve heard from more and more Georgians encouraging me to pursue statewide service,” he said. “Those Georgians deserve to have me consider their voices – so I am, strongly.”
Collins added, “As I focus on defending the president against partisan impeachment attacks, I recognize Georgia needs someone with experience serving at home and making them heard in Washington.”
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A Collins bid could have broad implications in the 2020 election as Republicans seek to defend seats held by Isakson, who is stepping down at year's end due to health concerns, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is running for a second term.
Kemp hopes to unify Republicans with the appointment, his most important political decision since he was elected in 2018. A credible GOP challenger to Kemp's pick would not only challenge the governor's political clout, it could also risk a divisive 2020 battle at a time when Republicans can ill afford discord.
Unlike traditional elections that have primaries to hash out Democratic and Republican nominees, the race to fill the remaining two years of Isakson's term is a wide-open special election that features multiple candidates from all parties on the same ballot.
The prospect of multiple well-funded Republicans slicing into each other’s base on a November ballot raises the likelihood of a January 2021 runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote – and the possibility that a Democrat who consolidates party support can win the contest outright.
Georgia Democratic leaders, too, talk of unifying behind one party-backed candidate who has yet to emerge. But several lower-profile candidates have entered the race, including Matt Lieberman, an educator and entrepreneur who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
A nudge from Trump?
A four-term lawmaker, Collins has become a household name to supporters of Trump because of his lead role on the House Judiciary Committee and his outspoken opposition to Democratic-led impeachment proceedings.
His district, which stretches across the mountains of North Georgia, is one of the most conservative on the Eastern Seaboard and is home to the state’s largest trove of Republican primary voters.
Collins’ supporters are quick to tout his alliance with Trump.
Donald Trump Jr. recently headlined a high-dollar fundraiser for Collins, calling him the type of "fighter" Republicans need in the Senate. On Wednesday, the younger Trump expressed his support for Collins on Twitter.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the president’s top congressional allies, sent a Twitter message saying it’s “beyond dispute” that Trump’s support led to Kemp’s win in the GOP primary on his way to victory in last year’s race for governor. He pressed Kemp to “do what you *know directly* is the right thing” and appoint Collins.
And after the AJC published a story detailing Collins’ threat to run, Trump dialed up Kemp to push his appointment, according to multiple people who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
One of them said Trump stressed Collins’ role fighting the president’s impeachment in the U.S. House and characterized him as someone who could be an “immediate leader” in the Senate. Another said the president also told Kemp he understands it’s his choice to make.
It wasn’t the first time Trump pressed Collins’ case.
While riding in the presidential limo during a Nov. 8 campaign trip to Atlanta, Trump told Kemp he liked Collins for the Senate vacancy, according to two other people familiar with the discussion who were not authorized to speak publicly about the private conversation.
Kemp responded that he still hadn’t made up his mind and, one of the people said, that he would call the president before he announced his decision. The governor’s office declined to comment.
With the threat to run, Collins may be trying to force Kemp's hand. The president's surprise endorsement helped Kemp defeat a better-financed GOP rival in 2018, and a few keystrokes from Trump could reshape the 2020 race for U.S. Senate, too.
But it also risks backfiring by infuriating the governor, who is keen on searching for an unconventional candidate to help broaden the party's appeal – and his own. Not only will his appointee help frame next year's election, he or she would also be expected to run again in 2022, when Kemp seeks another term.
It's why Republicans were in a tizzy over Loeffler after she submitted her application a few hours ahead of a Monday deadline, a move that triggered speculation that she wouldn't have done so without Kemp's urging.
A multimillionaire whose husband heads the Intercontinental Exchange, the behemoth financial trading platform that bought the New York Stock Exchange, Loeffler can self-finance a Senate campaign that's expected to shatter fundraising records.
She also could potentially help Republicans appeal to suburban women who have fled the party, a trend that helped Stacey Abrams nearly defeat Kemp last year and fueled GOP losses this month in Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial elections.
Her application emphasized her youth working on a corn and soybean farm as well as her support for Trump, whom she said she would ally with to "Keep America Great." A co-owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream, Loeffler runs Bakkt, a financial services firm that's a subsidiary of the Intercontinental Exchange.
The reaction to her potential appointment highlighted unease among grassroots conservatives – and explains why Collins floated his bid.
Some circulated screen shots of her donations to Democrats in the late 2000s and early part of this decade, as well as her company PAC’s more recent contributions.
Others contrasted her contributions to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential bid in 2012 – she pumped $750,000 into his PAC – with her lack of financial support for Trump during his 2016 campaign.
It would do “zero good to select a Mitt Romney Republican in order to pick up women votes in the suburbs if you lose a big portion of your base,” said Debbie Dooley, a tea party organizer.
Some prominent Republicans, meanwhile, quickly signaled their support.
Jay Morgan, a lobbyist and former executive director of the state party who aligns with its establishment wing, said that "the only thing that could make Kelly a stronger candidate is if her last name was Isakson."