Trump’s coronavirus rift with Kemp puts Georgia Republicans in a tough spot

President Donald Trump's opposition to Gov. Brian Kemp's plan to start reopening parts of Georgia's economy will force Republican candidates to pick between their party's leader or the state's top official amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That tension quickly factored into the race between U.S. Kelly Loeffler, Kemp’s appointee to the seat, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump initially favored.

Loeffler said Thursday she supports Kemp’s “efforts to begin to get Georgians back to work safely,” while Collins was critical of the governor.

“We all want the same thing: To open back up as soon as we possibly can. That’s what the president wants, that’s what Georgians want and that’s what I want,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“But leadership is about making decisions and communicating them effectively, and I think the governor has caused a lot of confusion by picking seemingly random businesses to open but leaving the stay-at-home order in place.”

Loeffler, meanwhile, said both Kemp and Trump “are showing strong leadership during these unprecedented times—and I’m honored to be working with them to reopen our economy based on a measured, data-driven approach.”

Many other GOP officials were conspicuously unwilling to wade into the high-stakes row after Trump said he "totally disagreed" with Kemp's decision to let barber shops, tattoo parlors and other businesses reopen Friday if they followed safety measures.

More: ‘Too soon,’ Trump says of Ga. plan to reopen economy; Kemp disagrees

More: How Kelly Loeffler is trying to pivot her coronavirus message

And Democrats highlighted internal GOP rifts between a president with overwhelming support among Georgia conservatives and the first life-long Republican elected governor since Reconstruction.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trumpeted that Trump threw Kemp “under the bus – and career politician Karen Handel was right there along with him.” The former congresswoman, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, lauded Kemp’s plan in a social media post earlier this week.

And U.S. Sen. David Perdue, standing for a second term in November, soon came under pressure from his Democratic rivals to take a side. His campaign didn't comment Wednesday night, but before Trump's remarks he told WABE he endorsed a measured approach.

“We’ve got to begin to reopen businesses. There’s a human cost to shutting down the economy, just like there’s a human cost to the disease,” Perdue said.

“At the end of the day, we have responsibility for ourselves. We need to be responsible for how we affect people around us and how they might affect us.”

No candidate, however, was in a tougher spot than Loeffler. The governor defied Trump by tapping Loeffler over Collins to the coveted seat, and the former financial executive has raced to curry favor with Trump since taking office in January.

In a quirk of timing, she joined the governor on a tele-town hall shortly before Trump’s press briefing where she spoke of Kemp’s approach as a needed step to help revive Georgia’s flagging economy.

“Poor Kelly did this to herself. She asked Brian to help her across the political street and they both got hit by a bus,” said Collins spokesman Dan McLagan. “Which then got backed over them. And caught fire.”

Shortly after, Loeffler aide Stephen Lawson said Collins “hit a new low” and accused him of undermining efforts to contain the disease.

“This pandemic has shown Georgia voters who the real leaders are -- and career politician Doug Collins is obviously not one of them,” said Lawson.