Georgia elections chief sets qualifying for US Senate seat for next week

The move could trigger a court challenge
Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Candidates for Georgia U.S. Senate in 2020. From left to right: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger set qualifying for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat for next week, a move that limits the already crowded field challenging the newly appointed Republican and could lead to a legal challenge.

Raffensperger announced Monday that the window to qualify for the race will be from March 2 to March 6, the same period that other candidates seeking state office must officially declare their intention to run.

The move is supported by Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed an executive order last week that paved the way for the decision by formally calling for a special election. He appointed Loeffler to the seat in December to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired because of mounting health issues.

Setting the window for next week could help Loeffler by blocking other candidates from getting in the race closer to the election. It would also prevent Democrats running against U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who has attracted three well-financed challengers, from switching races if they lost the May primary.

Still, Raffensperger's decision could trigger a court challenge and bring new scrutiny to a legislative debate surrounding Loeffler's race.

While regularly scheduled elections have a uniform timeline, special elections triggered by a resignation like the one for Loeffler’s seat have their own calendar.

In this case, the election is set to go forward in November with candidates from all political parties competing on the same ballot.

The Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger talks to the media in front of old voting machines while waiting for the largest shipment of Georgia’s new secure paper-ballot voting machines at the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections offices on Dec. 30th, 2019. 2839 units are to be delivered for Dekalb County. (Photo by Phil Skinner).

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Yet there's been a question ricocheting around the state Capitol surrounding whether qualifying for the seat should be held in March, when other candidates must formally sign up to run, or whether the law should be interpreted to mean candidate qualifying must remain open until September.

Georgia secretaries of state have for decades determined when candidates can sign up to run for office, and a 1986 opinion by then-Attorney General Mike Bowers supports that view. Raffensperger and his allies have pushed to codify that opinion, wary of a legal challenge that could curtail his powers.

A measure he backs, House Bill 757, would do just that by making clear that the secretary of state has that authority. The proposal was approved by a House committee last week but has yet to reach a full vote on the House floor.

It's part of a broader measure that would also create partisan primaries for Georgia special elections — but not until next year. Delaying the beginning of partisan primaries in special elections would avoid a head-to-head Republican fight between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, her most formidable GOP challenger.

A previous version of the bill that would have created a partisan primary in the U.S. Senate race this year stalled after Kemp threatened to veto it.

Loeffler's allies worry that she could have been vulnerable in a May primary against Collins, who polls show has a slightly higher favorability among Republicans.

Five top contenders, and several other lesser-known figures, have already announced plans to run for the seat. Aside from Collins and Loeffler, three Democrats say they'll qualify. Entrepreneur Matt Lieberman, former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Candidates for the U.S. Senate special election will have to pay a qualifying fee of $5,220. The election will be held Nov. 3, and a runoff would occur Jan. 5 if none of the candidates receives a majority.