The Jolt: Fights over budget, U.S. Senate seat threaten 2020 session

January 13, 2020 - Atlanta - House Speaker David Ralston adjourns the first day of the 2020 legislative session.  The Georgia General Assembly started its 2020 session amid a backdrop of an election year.  ACLU volunteers greeted lawmakers and offered copies of the constitution.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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January 13, 2020 - Atlanta - House Speaker David Ralston adjourns the first day of the 2020 legislative session. The Georgia General Assembly started its 2020 session amid a backdrop of an election year. ACLU volunteers greeted lawmakers and offered copies of the constitution. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Faster than a bat-winged coronavirus, a pall of pessimism has quickly spread across the state Capitol.

On Monday, the intense budget fight brewing between Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston already had lobbyists and lawmakers alike advising each other to prepare for a legislative session that could drag on through mid-April.

At a gathering of Georgia mayors, Ralston urged his audience to push back against cuts being recommended by the governor’s office. “In weddings, they tell you to speak now or forever hold your peace,” Ralston told the mayors. “I’m telling you much the same this morning. Because soon it will be too late.”

We can now overlay that feud with what could be a more fierce one -- a Republican fight for a U.S. Senate seat, again featuring Ralston and Kemp as sponsors.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed to fill Johnny Isakson’s shoes by the governor, remains in Washington today for another day of arguments in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (Loeffler and Kemp also spoke Monday morning to the Georgia Municipal Association.)

Meanwhile, no one will be sleeping through this morning’s sermon in the state House. The chaplain of the day will be U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who we now know will be mounting a campaign against Loeffler in the days ahead.

Ralston gave what’s tantamount to an endorsement of Collins, his longtime ally.

“And yes, I have a confession, he is my friend,” said Ralston. “He is my friend. He has stood by me when few would, and I don’t forget that.”

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Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, does a tv news interview just outside the House chamber, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, at the Capitol in Washington. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet relayed the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial three weeks since President Donald Trump was impeached on charges of abuse and obstruction. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, does a tv news interview just outside the House chamber, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, at the Capitol in Washington. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet relayed the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial three weeks since President Donald Trump was impeached on charges of abuse and obstruction. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

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Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, does a tv news interview just outside the House chamber, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, at the Capitol in Washington. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet relayed the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial three weeks since President Donald Trump was impeached on charges of abuse and obstruction. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Key to the Loeffler/Collins, Kemp/Ralston confrontation is House Bill 757, which would create a partisan May primary in the state's upcoming U.S. Senate election -- doing away with the "jungle" election now scheduled for November. A House Government Affairs subcommittee approved an amended version of the bill on an 8-2 vote Monday -- a vote that featured an alliance of Democrats and Republicans. Our AJC colleague Mark Niesse has the details here.

At the 12-minute subcommittee meeting, state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, who has become a critic of the House speaker and cast one of the “no” votes, very clearly laid out the dynamics behind the legislation:

"Obviously, there's something happening this year, where somebody doesn't like what the governor has done, his appointment. And so we're changing the law in advance of this….Specifically, this speaker has some issues with conservatives. This is how he reacts to decisions made by conservatives. He tries to change the rules or tries to bully people into decisions." 

HB 757 has a Republican precedent. In 2017, a “jungle” election was held to fill the state Senate seat that Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, had vacated to run for governor. Two Democrats made it into a runoff -- even though more than half the voters had picked Republican candidates. The eventual winner was Jen Jordan, who still holds the seat.

In 2018, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, introduced legislation to abolish “jungle” elections. Special primaries would precede more standard general elections, though as a cost-saving measure, the legislative would have given party nominations to winners by plurality -- not by majority vote.

The legislation passed the Senate, but never got traction in the House. Kemp, then secretary of state, opposed the legislation -- as he does HB 757 now.

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On the other hand, GOP activist Debbie Dooley, who has campaigned against David Ralston in his north Georgia district, is now making common cause with the House speaker. Both are allies of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

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01/27/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta, Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

01/27/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta, Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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01/27/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta, Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

In the battle between incumbent U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Republicans are going to have to pick sides - or come up with an excuse to stay on the sidelines.

Consider U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in the latter category for now.

One of your Insiders asked Perdue about Collins’ impending decision on Monday night. “That’s his prerogative,” is all Perdue would say -- quickly pivoting to talking about the House’s attempt to change the election dates for that Senate race.

Others might not be so circumspect. Gov. Brian Kemp will surely be pressing his allies to endorse Loeffler, as Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has already done.

And Collins will look to lock up support from fellow U.S. House members, north Georgia officials and former colleagues in the state Legislature. Expect House Speaker David Ralston, who helped engineer legislation to force Loeffler into a May primary, to be among them.

Outside groups are fast staking out positions, too. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which traditionally supports incumbent senators, is backing Loeffler, as is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And the conservative Club for Growth said Collins "should start being more responsible with taxpayer dollars" before challenging Loeffler.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., tweeted an endorsement for Loeffler Monday night.

"Our party needs to do more than talk about supporting strong conservative women. We need to DO it," Blackburn wrote. "@kloeffler is pro life, pro gun and pro Trump. I'm proud to stand with Kelly. It's time to support strong conservative women. Not oppose them."

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Kelly Loeffler and her husband donated over $1 million to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012 and once described him as a friend.

So it came as a shock when Loeffler, Georgia's newest senator, called her Romney out on Twitter after he expressed an openness to call witnesses during the Senate impeachment trial.

"Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame," Loeffler wrote on Twitter.

Their clash was among the fallout after the New York Times reported over the weekend that John Bolton, a former national security advisor to President Donald Trump, in his soon-to-be-released book detailed a conversation about withholding military aid to the Ukraine.

Romney, of Utah, was among the first GOP members to say he would be willing to call Bolton as a witness, but Loeffler and other Republicans are dead set against it.

He did not respond to Loeffler’s Tweet directly after it went viral on Twitter. But he took the high road in a statement to a Politico reporter on Monday evening.

"I think a good deal of Sen. Loeffler, and she and Jeff have been good friends and supported me time and time again and I appreciate her being in the Senate," Romney told reporter Burgess Everett.

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The decision to serve U.S. senators a dinner of Chick-fil-A on Monday night, toward the end of the seventh day of the impeachment trial, allowed Georgia's representatives a chance to big-up the Atlanta-based chain.

"Can confirm. It was delicious," U.S. Sen. David Perdue wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler followed up a few minutes later with her own review: @ChickfilA is arguably the best part of the impeachment trial so far," she wrote.

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Gambling fever is about to hit the state Capitol:

-- On Monday, Bruce Thompson, R-White, took to the well of the Senate to urge his colleagues the push back against renewed energy around expanded gambling in Georgia, our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu reports.

“Seven years in a row, we’re the number one place to do business and we’ve done it without a casino,” Thompson said.

Supporters of expanding gambling past the Georgia Lottery – to include some combination of casinos, horse racing or sports betting – have said allowing the industry in the state would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state.

Any expansion of gambling would require the state’s voters approve a constitutional amendment, but only after securing the support of two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber.

“Openly state that people have a right to vote it on it,” Thompson said, referring to lawmakers who say only the residents of Georgia can approve expanded gambling. “If that’s the case why don’t you just eliminate the General Assembly. That will save money, too.”

-- Derek Schiller, president and CEO of the Atlanta Braves, Steve Koonin, president and CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, will be on GPB’s “Political Rewind” at 9 a.m. today, to talk about a measure they and other Atlanta sports executives are backing to legalize sports betting in Georgia.

-- Meanwhile, the American Gaming Association wants you to know that Americans will wager approximately $6.8 billion on the NFL championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. The Super Bowl is Sunday.