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How Pence’s visit highlighted Georgia’s tense GOP Senate race

Congressman Barry Loudermilk speaks with Vice President Mike Pence (second from left) as U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks with Congressman Doug Collins (right) after Pence arrived on Air Force Two at Dobbins Air Reserve Base on Friday, May 22, 2020. (Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Congressman Barry Loudermilk speaks with Vice President Mike Pence (second from left) as U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks with Congressman Doug Collins (right) after Pence arrived on Air Force Two at Dobbins Air Reserve Base on Friday, May 22, 2020. (Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

It was a fraught political moment but somehow it seemed relaxed, even cheerful: U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, fresh off a flight on Air Force Two with Vice President Mike Pence, descended to the tarmac at Dobbins Air Reserve Base and almost immediately came face-to-face with archrival Rep. Doug Collins.

The two grasped hands and engaged in conversation for about 30 seconds. Forgotten, for a moment, were Collins’ demands that the incumbent abandon the race and her bludgeoning him as a self-obsessed careerist.

That brief encounter belied the ferocity of the race between the two for the November special election – and the intense maneuvering that led to the meeting.

No longer can a White House trip to Georgia be a simple affair, not with two powerful Georgia GOP factions warring over the administration’s favor.

Instead, the visits take on the air of a high school drama, as the two seek to be in the afterglow of the big-man-on-campus.

Recall President Donald Trump's visit to Atlanta in March, an on-again-off-again trip that also left Collins on the tarmac's receiving line while Loeffler deplaned. Later, though, he was rewarded with a ride with Trump in his convoy.

This journey, too, had its own logistics somersaults. As the New York Times reported, Loeffler was invited to board the plane by top Trump aide Mark Meadows, who counts several of his former staffers in Loeffler's office.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler looks at her phone before the beginning of the roundtable discussion at the Waffle House corporate offices in Norcross on Friday, May 22, 2020. The event was held as part of VIce President Mike Pence's trip to metro Atlanta. (Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler looks at her phone before the beginning of the roundtable discussion at the Waffle House corporate offices in Norcross on Friday, May 22, 2020. The event was held as part of VIce President Mike Pence's trip to metro Atlanta. (Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

That led Pence’s aides to ask Collins to join the greeting party – and ride with Pence back to Dobbins on the return trip, which also involved an unannounced visit to the late Ravi Zacharias’ ministry. Both got roughly 30 minutes of face time with the Veep, an administration official told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Those nuggets were tucked into a broader Times story that detailed how Trump's advisers are growing "increasingly concerned" with Loeffler, who was tapped to the job by Gov. Brian Kemp in December because of her business background, a belief she could help win back suburban women and her pledge to spend at least $20 million on her campaign.

The meeting came at a delicate moment for Loeffler, who has sought to quiet an uproar over stock trades made shortly after she was briefed on the threat of the coronavirus. She’s maintained no secret information was shared at the meeting and the sales were made by advisers without her knowledge.

A spate of recent polls, some by Republican groups, show Loeffler either deadlocked with Collins or trailing him badly. She recently acknowledged she handed over documents to investigators probing the sales.

And the presence of Collins in the race has denied Loeffler a circling-of-the-wagons movement to rally Republicans behind her, and his allies are upping the pressure on Loeffler to stand aside to allow the four-term congressman to unite the GOP.

>>More: 'Kryptonite?' Loeffler's wealth drives campaign, but threatens it

>>More: Internal GOP poll points to troubling signs for Georgia Republicans

With Joe Biden threatening to compete in Georgia in November, some administration officials worry that Loeffler can damage down-ballot  contenders. Others, however, suggest the Republican-on-Republican feud could excite greater turnout.

Either way, Loeffler shows no signs of backing down. On the day of Pence's visit, she released the latest volley of ads in a $4 million TV campaign that seeks to reframe her as an able administrator in the pandemic era – and blames the "trash" media for her problems.

May 22, 2020 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp and VP Mike Pence along with First Lady Marty Kemp, had lunch at the Star Cafe in Atlanta during Pence’s visit, which also included a roundtable discussion with restaurant executives at the Waffle House Headquarters.. John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com
May 22, 2020 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp and VP Mike Pence along with First Lady Marty Kemp, had lunch at the Star Cafe in Atlanta during Pence’s visit, which also included a roundtable discussion with restaurant executives at the Waffle House Headquarters.. John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com

“I’m in a statistical tie for first,” she said, outside a stop at Waffle House’s headquarters. “Georgians see what I’m doing – this is a political attack based on no facts. We are running a very strong campaign – I have grassroots operations in all 159 counties. I’m very proud of my track record in the Senate.”

As her campaign more aggressively swings back at Collins – including a new online attack using a domain name tied to his name – her supporters offer frequent reminders of her ample resources.

Likely the richest member of Congress, Loeffler has sought to emphasize the assets her immense fortune affords – a private plane, charitable donations, the ability to woo outside groups – rather than downplay them.

The latest was the $1 million donation by her husband, financial magnate Jeff Sprecher, to a super PAC supporting Trump’s campaign. It was his largest-ever federal contribution -- and a gift that suggested he could dip deeper into his wallet.

As the equal-time balancing act with Pence made clear, the White House has not yet taken sides, and there has been no public sign of Trump wading into the race beyond a brief, and quickly aborted, attempt to float Collins for a top intelligence post.

More: Internal fight threatens in Georgia GOP over U.S. Senate race

More: Pence touts Georgia's economic reopening

Expect Collins and his allies – a group that now includes former Rep. Karen Handel, the foremost suburban Republican woman in Georgia – to keep pushing for her to quit the contest.

Mocking Loeffler's  promise that she won't drop out, Collins spokesman Dan McLagan had this response:

“ ‘I’m not quitting’ is usually the second-to-last thing a political candidate says.”

Some other notes from the visit: 

- If you look closely at some of the pictures of Pence, Kemp and his wife, Marty, at Star Café, you'll see a familiar face who still somehow looks out of place: State Sen. Jeff Mullis, whose Chickamauga-based district is 90 miles northwest of the diner.

The Republican, who chairs the influential Senate Rules Committee, faces a contested primary for the first time since 2016. His opponent, state Rep. Colton Moore, has tried to paint Mullis as a creature of the establishment – and the incumbent might have figured he could benefit from the ultimate outsider’s No. 2.

- Among the visitors on the tarmac who bid Pence farewell: Handel, who posted a socially-distanced picture next to the Veep. A few hours later Trump posted an endorsement of Handel as a "tremendous advocate" for the military, border security and gun rights.

“Karen has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” wrote Trump of the former congressman, who is aiming for a rematch against Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath but first must best several GOP rivals.

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