Analysis: A Democratic bid to alter the Georgia melee for a U.S. Senate seat

News and analysis from the AJC's political team
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

A high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse is underway in the effort to permanently replace Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate.

Kelly Loeffler, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the position at least through next January, is the only sure contestant. The Buckhead businesswoman and former Illinois farm girl has promised to spend $20 million of her own money to see herself through.

The last 48 hours have illustrated Loeffler's dilemma. On Monday, during the lengthy Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Loeffler listened as the Rev. Raphael Warnock ripped the bark off "politicians of every stripe, falling all over themselves to pay tribute, to offer platitudes, to give lip service to Dr. King."

Warnock, who holds the pulpit that King and his father once shared, is likely to become a Democratic candidate challenging Loeffler from the left.

Hours later, the White House announced that U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, would be one of eight House Republicans who would assist President Donald Trump during the impeachment trial that began Tuesday.

Given that they won’t be part of deliberations on the Senate floor, it likely means that Collins’ job will be to make the public case for Trump via cable news – keeping his Georgia profile high.

Collins had lobbied for Kemp’s appointment in November, even bringing Trump into the discussion. Even now he’s considering a run at Loeffler, from the right.

Loeffler could face both challengers, and many more, at the same time on Nov 3. Under Georgia law, special elections for U.S. Senate seats are non-partisan “jungle” affairs – meaning that all candidates in the contest, Democrat and Republican, would be on that ballot. If no one wins a majority, the top two contenders – again, regardless of party – move to a Jan. 5, 2021 runoff.

Use of the word “jungle” in this sense has Louisiana origins, and some have found it objectionable. A more apt description, I think, would be “melee” – a word derived from a 14th century form of European jousting in which a crowd of knights would be thrown into an arena. The winner was the one left standing.

One more thing about the upcoming Georgia melee: According to one prominent bit of state law, qualifying for the contest is to be kept open until 60 days before the vote. That would be somewhere around Labor Day.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has taken issue with this legal reading, which conceivably would allow a candidate, defeated in a Democratic primary to face down U.S. Sen. David Perdue, to declare for Loeffler’s seat – and keep running.

Strategically, that’s highly unlikely.

Nonetheless, Raffensperger has caused to be introduced House Bill 757, a bill that would allow the secretary of state to set the qualifying period for the Loeffler/Isakson contest. Raffensperger has indicated it would occur the first week in March, concurrent with all other regularly scheduled state and federal contests.

Some have suggested that the move is intended to put pressure on Collins, to force him to a decision in the U.S. Senate race before he’s ready. This is a misreading.

By early March, the Gainesville lawyer will have to decide whether to re-up for his Ninth District congressional seat in any case. He has friends and allies who would like to replace him in Congress should he decide to run against Loeffler. Confusing them would hurt his cause.

Here’s where things get interesting. These two things are true in the state Capitol: 1) Doug Collins has many friends in the building, especially in the House, where he was a member; and 2) Democrats have been on the upswing in the Legislature.

On Tuesday, I was on the phone with House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, who recently lost a knife fight with a surgeon who was out to rob him of his appendix. Which was a good thing.

He is still recuperating at home. Even so, Trammell wanted to talk about HB 757. “I think if we’re going to explore making changes to qualification rules midstream, that we ought to think more broadly about the process and what would be the most democratic way forward – with a small ‘d.’

“At this point we have plenty of time to change the rules to have a party primary, followed by a general election,” he said. “That would give candidates a chance to make their case in respective primaries, and also to have a very clarifying general election.”

Make no mistake. This is an offer of an alliance with Republican friends of Doug Collins that Trammell is putting on the table.

Such a change in the election calendar would turn the race for the Loeffler/Isakson seat into a mirror of the Perdue contest. It would give Democrats a better chance of winning on a first ballot. They have a miserable record when it comes to runoff elections, and even with a Libertarian in the contest, this would make a January 2021 round of voting much less likely.

But it would also require Loeffler to survive a May primary, giving the novice politician six fewer months to establish herself with the Georgia GOP base. Her built-in financial advantage against Collins would be greatly reduced.

Governor Kemp would have to be persuaded to sign the bill, which on its face seems unlikely. But let’s see how far Trammell gets.

Like I said, it’s a cat-and-mouse game. Except that we don’t know who’s the cat, and who’s the mouse.