Doug Collins announces US Senate bid, setting up GOP divide in Georgia

Congressman Doug Collins launched a bid Wednesday for U.S. Senate on Fox News, saying he’d center his campaign on support for President Donald Trump as he dismissed concerns about opening a bitter Republican rift in Georgia.

“We’re in for the Georgia Senate race. I’ve still got a lot of work left to do to help this president,” he said. “We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president and working for the people of Georgia.”

The decision by the four-term congressman sets up a battle with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy Republican executive tapped by Gov. Brian Kemp in December.  The Rev. Raphael Warnock is poised to join the November race, along with other Democrats.

Collins, who built a national profile as one of Trump’s top defenders in Congress, hopes to run with support from senior White House officials - and possibly the president himself.

Trump privately lobbied Kemp on at least three separate occasions to tap Collins to fill the coveted seat, though he's stayed publicly neutral since Loeffler was sworn into office earlier this month.

Both Loeffler and Collins have raced behind the scenes to capture Trump’s support, and Collins said Wednesday on Fox & Friends he’s eager to earn it.

“That’s up to the president,” he said, adding: “I appreciate all his help and support in the past.”

Loeffler, a political newcomer, has also aggressively tried to win over the president by slamming the "impeachment circus," promising to support Trump's agenda and stocking her campaign with his allies.

The congressman's decision, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, forces state Republicans to pick sides between a conservative with grassroots support and a little-known incumbent backed by a powerful governor.

Since the race is a special election with no primary to filter out nominees, the GOP division heightens the possibility that a unifying Democratic candidate can win the race outright.

A primary shift?

Collins’ allies in the Georgia House are pushing legislation that would require a primary in the November election to fill the final two years of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. That would help the Gainesville congressman, who polls show is far better known among conservatives in Georgia.

The governor has threatened to veto the legislation, which has wide support among Democrats who are eager to avoid the possibility of a January 2021 runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. Georgia Democrats have a dismal record in recent overtime races.

Though Collins told Fox & Friends he was not worried about sparking a divisive Republican feud with Loeffler, partisans are already taking sides.

Loeffler’s allies quickly warned that Collins’ decision could make Georgia an even bigger battleground target for Democrats.

“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 of the Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We’ll have her back if she needs us."

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which traditionally sides with incumbents, said the “shortsightedness” of Collins’ decision will hurt both Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is also up for a second term in November.

“All he has done is put two Senate seats, multiple House seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play,” said Kevin McLaughlin, the group’s executive director.

Kemp, meanwhile, avoided direct mention of Collins at a Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering in downtown Atlanta. But he touted Loeffler’s record in her first weeks in office.

“I am proud of what she’s accomplished so far, and I know she will continue to fight for our state. She doesn’t owe anybody anything in Washington, D.C.,” he said, adding: "We need somebody fighting for us every single day.”

Democrats have their own internal commotion to sort out. Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur, and Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor, plan to qualify. And Warnock will try to position himself as the front-runner with support from leading party figures.

Collins' appearance on Fox News, where he has become a nearly-daily presence, came a day after he declined to address Georgia reporters about his bid during a visit to the statehouse. He said a "bigger" local roll-out would be scheduled soon.

“We fought for the president. We fought for our state. And we fought for this country,” he said on Fox. “And we’re going to continue to do that. I look forward to a good exchange of ideas and I look forward to this election.”

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