12/04/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Newly appointed U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (right) listens as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) speaks during a press conference in his office at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate to take the place of U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Opinion: GOP side of this U.S. Senate race is a contest for Trump's favor

If Doug Collins is to become the next U.S. senator from Georgia, Brian Kemp will have to become a compromised member of the Republican establishment.

The shotgun-toting candidate for governor, blessed by President Donald Trump only 18 months ago, will need to be rebranded as unTrumpish. Ditto for Kelly Loeffler, the skyscraping businesswoman whom Kemp has placed in the U.S. Senate.

That’s because the Gainesville preacher-turned-congressman, who entered the race Wednesday, will need plenty of cash and the base of the Georgia GOP if he’s to thwart Kemp’s self-funding replacement for Johnny Isakson in November.

Trump is the key to both ingredients.

But for Collins to win Trump’s approval, Loeffler and Kemp must lose it. That may be the only binary aspect of this complicated, all-comers campaign, which will feature both Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot and won’t have its first vote until Nov. 3.

It is why Georgia’s political class took note this week when Loeffler dissed fellow U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, often a Trump critic, for his willingness to allow witnesses to “slander” the president during his impeachment trial. And when Collins, though he sat in Atlanta, announced his candidacy on Fox News – at an early morning hour when the Audience of One habitually tunes in.

Shifts in the favor of a president who prides himself on his own unpredictability certainly aren’t unheard of. Last month, John Bolton may have been a conservative demi-god. Today, according to those voices on Fox News, the president’s former national security adviser is a tool of the deep state.

January 28, 2020 Atlanta: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) shakes hands with members of the House before he addressed the Georgia House on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 as its Chaplin of the day. This coming just hours after news broke that Collins is preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and avoided any mention of seeking a higher office. In his sermon and closing prayer, Collins honored Rep. Jay Powell, the House Rules Committee chairman who died in November and who Collins described as a mentor. Speaker David Ralston signaled his support of the soon-to-be senate candidate, stopping short of an explicit endorsement. Collins and Ralston have a strong relationship dating back to their time as state house colleagues; Collins voted for Ralston’s speakership while deployed in Iraq. “He is my friend. He has stood by me when few would,” Ralston said.”And I don’t forget things like that.” JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

But governors who control $28 billion state budgets aren’t creatures to be trifled with, either. On Thursday, House GOP leaders pulled back House Bill 757, an election law bill that had been altered to Collins’ benefit — with the support of House Democrats.

Under Georgia law, special elections to fill U.S. Senate seats are “jungle” contests in which Republicans and Democrats compete in a single scrum. There are no partisan primaries. Instead, the climate is that of a general election. The one in 2016 attracted 4 million Georgia voters — Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents.

Loeffler was picked to suit that electorate.

HB 757 would have made the race for the Loeffler/Isakson seat a part of this year’s traditional calendar — just like the separate re-election bid by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

Democrats and Republicans in the Loeffler/Isakson contest would have met separately in May 19 primaries. Nominees would have been placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.

In a one-on-one GOP primary, Loeffler’s financial advantage – she has promised to spend $20 million of her own money – would be diminished. And the smaller population of hardcore Republican voters – they numbered only 607, 441 in the 2018 primary for governor – have been a tough hurdle for women candidates in the past.

House Democrats had allied themselves with the Republican effort behind HB 757 – thinking it would also ease the way for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who announced his U.S. Senate candidacy on Thursday.

But in the face of Governor Kemp’s threatened veto, HB 757 apparently failed to achieve majority support within the House Republican caucus. The governor, after all, has the line item veto – and can erase funding for specific projects in the districts of offending lawmakers.

Collins endorsed the aim of HB 757 on Wednesday. “There’s no reason Georgia Republicans shouldn’t be able to pick their own Senate nominee,” he wrote on Twitter.

By Thursday morning, House Speaker David Ralston — a close Collins ally — had denied any and all ulterior motives. “It was never directed at this special election,” Ralston told a reporter. “This special election was not to be singled out. I think jungle primaries are bad policy. We’re just trying to change the policy moving forward.”

That isn’t the end of the debate. It simply changes the venue.

Loeffler defenders, which include the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other top GOP leadership PACs, are planning a wave of TV attacks, alleging that Collins’ entry into the race makes a Democratic victory more possible. “Selfish” is a word that many have settled on.

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

Politico.com reports that Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization, will spend $3 million on TV, beginning next week, in an attempt to portray Collins as a denizen of the Washington swamp.

You can expect Collins to lean on Fox contacts, including Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. By one Media Matters count, Collins has made 128 appearances on the cable network in the last two-and-a-half years – and 89 in the last 12 months.

Also, keep an eye on the Perdue cousins. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Senator David Perdue, as well as Collins, were on Air Force One with President Trump on that November trip to Atlanta — the one during which Trump pushed Kemp to appoint Collins as Isakson’s replacement.

The ground war will be even more important in the Loeffler-Collins conflict.

Beginning next month, Republicans across the state will be meeting on various Saturdays to select delegates to the state GOP convention in Cobb County on May 29 and 30, and to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte beginning Aug. 24.

This is where much of the Loeffler-Collins conflict will be fought out. Over the years, state GOP conventions in particular have been unfriendly venues for sitting Republican governors and their initiatives.

If both candidates are allowed to address the state gathering, the rhetorical difference could be remarkable, pitting Loeffler’s cool, even speaking style against the cadences that Collins learned as a Southern Baptist minister.

Should Loeffler and her supporters emphasize the importance of preserving GOP dominance in Georgia, look for Collins to make a grassroots appeal that underlines this fact: He is one of the poorer members of Congress, while Loeffler may be among the richest.

But it is in Charlotte where things could get awkward. Presidential nominating conventions are where political parties like to display their candidates on the November ballot.

As things stand, both Loeffler and Collins will be on Georgia’s ballot. Who gets the stage time in August? And who can make his or her way into the camera frame with President Trump? Answer that, and we’ll know much more about where this contest is headed.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.