The Jolt: State lawmakers pull back on measure to alter calendar for U.S. Senate race

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
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

News and analysis from the AJC politics team

The House Rules Committee this morning pulled back on House Bill 757, the measure to put a U.S. Senate race suddenly chock full of heavy hitters on a traditional primary/general election track.

In a two-minute meeting, House Governmental Affairs Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, asked that the bill be remanded to his committee for further work. A House spokesman said lawmakers want to add language that would eliminate “jungle” primaries in state legislative races -- as well as special elections for U.S. Senate, our AJC colleague Amanda Coyne.

The bill could be key to the fortunes of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who on Wednesday announced his intention to challenge U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed this month to replace Johnny Isakson in Washington.

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)
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

As Georgia law currently stands, Collins would be one of several candidates -- Republican and Democrat -- with Loeffler on a November ballot. A runoff would be held in January 2021, if necessary.

Collins is forcefully advocating for HB 757, which would require Loeffler to survive a GOP primary in May.

“There’s no reason Georgia Republicans shouldn’t be able to pick their own Senate nominee,” Collins tweeted on Wednesday, thanking Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, for siding with him on the issue.

We’ve heard varying accounts of arm-twisting from House Speaker David Ralston and the governor, who are on opposite sides of the issue.

Most of the 75 Democrats in the House are siding with Ralston -- on the theory that it would give a boost to the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who announced his candidacy in the U.S. Senate contest this morning. Two other Democrats, former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver of Augusta and Matt Lieberman, son of a former U.S. senator, are also in the race.

What’s more important is whether Ralston has a majority of the chamber’s Republicans, which combined with Democratic supporters would also presumably give the speaker the requisite 121 votes needed to overcome a veto.

Suffice it to say that Kemp’s administration will be keeping tabs on each Republican “yes” vote - and will look to reward lawmakers who reject the proposal.

Over in the Senate, the fate of the bill is far more uncertain. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an ally of Kemp and Loeffler, has little reason to bring the measure to a vote. But he also faces pressure from Collins supporters in his caucus.

November 21, 2019 - Atlanta - Amy Klobuchar shares a laugh with Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Rev. Raphael G. Warnock.  Democratic presidential candidates including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, along with Stacey Abrahms,  were calling and texting voters Thursday whose registrations could be canceled in Georgia at a Fair Fight phone bank at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The phone bank was in response to Georgia election officials' plan to cancel more than 313,000 voter registrations next month.   Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
November 21, 2019 - Atlanta - Amy Klobuchar shares a laugh with Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Rev. Raphael G. Warnock. Democratic presidential candidates including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, along with Stacey Abrahms, were calling and texting voters Thursday whose registrations could be canceled in Georgia at a Fair Fight phone bank at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The phone bank was in response to Georgia election officials' plan to cancel more than 313,000 voter registrations next month. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Senate GOP leaders are likely to pay attention to the vote margin the bill receives in the House. It could be the litmus test for whether they even flirt with going forward.

State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, a floor leader for Kemp, on Wednesday gave a preview of how he’d fight the bill in the Senate if it gets that far. “The last thing I want to do is to join the Democrats and help them to win an election,” he said.

***

We may someday look back on these two paragraphs from the New York Times as the most consequential result of President Donald Trump's ongoing impeachment trial:

In their responses, Mr. Trump's lawyers offered their most expansive defense of the president to date, effectively arguing that a president cannot be removed from office for demanding political favors if he believes his re-election is in the national interest.

"Every public official I know believes that his election is in the public interest," said Alan M. Dershowitz, the celebrity defense lawyer and constitutional scholar who is part of the Mr. Trump's legal team. "Mostly, you're right."

***

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins' decision to run against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler creates a tough situation for his Georgia GOP colleagues in the House.

Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, described it as “awkward” and “difficult,” and he said he hasn’t decided whether he will endorse either candidate ahead of the special election.

Drew Ferguson, R-West Point was even more tight-lipped, literally. Asked whether he could eventually pick a candidate to endorse, Ferguson pressed his lips together and shrugged his shoulders.

***

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler took President Donald Trump up on a Wednesday morning invitation to attend the signing ceremony for the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade agreement.

Trump had invited the entire Senate GOP caucus, ahead of the day’s impeachment proceedings. “Maybe I'm being just nice to them because I want their vote. Does that make sense?” the president said to the chuckling crowd.

One-by-one, Trump recognized each senator in the audience. Your Washington Insider took note of what he said to Loeffler, who has been in office less than a month. Only hours before, she learned that U.S. Rep. Doug Collins had launched his GOP campaign to oust her.

"Congratulations, Kelly," Trump said. "Really great. They already like you a lot. That's what the word is."

The president was more effusive when mentioning other members. For example, this is what Trump said to her Florida colleague: “Rick Scott has been so incredible. Great governor of Florida. A great, great governor, and now he's a great senator.”

***

One final tidbit about this U.S. Senate race: House GOP rules now require Collins to step down as the ranking GOP member on the Judiciary Committee -- a position that gave Collins a high national profile during last year's impeachment inquiry. A transition period will allow a steering committee of House Republicans time to choose his successor.

***

Fair Fight Action, the election protection group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, is out with a TV ad addressing the roughly 300,000 Georgians recently purged from the voting rolls -- suspected of having moved, died, or simply not voting in recent elections. After announcing the purge, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reinstated about 22,000 voters that it had removed -- in the face of litigation from FFA. Click here to watch.

The 30-second TV spot advises voters to check their registration status by going to georgiavotersearch.com. The deadline for registering to vote in the March 24 Democratic presidential primary is Feb. 24. (President Trump was declared the winner of his March 24 primary last year.)

But there is a secondary message in the spot. Raffensperger isn't mentioned. The focal point is Gov. Brian Kemp, who defeated Abrams in 2018, but may face her again in 2022. Watch it here:

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A federal judge on Wednesday redrew voting districts in Sumter County, home to former President Jimmy Carter in southwest Georgia. African Americans make up a majority of the population but control just two of seven school board seats.

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The AJC's James Salzer and Maya Prabhu report that budget-writers and at least one agency head say the governor's budget won't fund a $1,000 raise for all state employees who earn less than $40,000 as promised. Data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution backs up that assertion.

***

A polling memo ricocheting around the statehouse might as well be a warning to lawmakers not to mess with Gov. Brian Kemp.

The poll of 500 likely voters, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies from Jan. 20-23, found Kemp’s approval rating above 60% and that broad majorities of voters support his plan to boost teacher pay and cut state spending.

The poll asked voters what’s more important: “Cutting the state income tax .25 percent, or giving teachers a $2,000 pay raise?”

It found that two-thirds of voters sided with teachers, while about one-quarter said the state income tax was more important. Check out the memo here.

***

We've picked up word that 2020 hopeful Michael Bloomberg has opened his first campaign office in Atlanta and that he'll soon open another one in Decatur.

The former New York mayor plans to scatter about a half-dozen offices across the state ahead of the March 24 primary.

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On his Facebook page, Republican Lauren McDonald – son of Lauren "Bubba" McDonald, who sits on the state Public Service Commission – has announced that he'll run for the Forsyth County seat being given up by state Rep. Marc Morris, R-Cumming. "Bubba" McDonald got his start in the House, eventually becoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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The end of an era: After leading the Buckhead Coalition for more than 30 years, former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, 92, has announced that he will retire later this year from the organization he founded in 1988.

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It is looking less likely that the General Assembly will tackle gambling related legislation this year. Horse racing proposals that easily cleared a Senate committee last session were passed over for a vote by the same panel on Wednesday, the AJC's Maya T. Prabhu reported.

“The Senate has not shown an appetite to pass any gambling legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, told reporters ahead of the committee vote.

***

Although Secretary of State Brad Raffersperger said Georgia's new voting system worked well during Tuesday night's special election, poll watchers told the AJC's Mark Niesse that the test drive wasn't perfect:

"The transition to any new system will inevitably trigger some human error, and we experienced some minor ones Tuesday," Raffensperger said in a statement Wednesday. "Our challenge is to scale up this success to more than 2,000 polling places in March for the presidential preference primary."

The problems didn't prevent anyone from voting or delay precincts from opening on time, he said.

Ronnie Martin, who watched voting in eight precincts in Colquitt County on Tuesday, said she witnessed several occasions when voters had to repeatedly turn around and flip their ballots over before they could be scanned. She said some voter check-in tablets didn't initially start up correctly, and poll workers had to reboot them.

Martin said the touchscreens are so large that poll workers and other voters could see how their neighbors were voting.

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