Georgia House panel backs primary before U.S. Senate special election

A bill that would force U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler into a Republican primary election against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins passed a committee Tuesday, clearing a path for a full vote in the Georgia House of Representatives.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee approved the legislation that would replace a planned free-for-all special election in November with a partisan primary election in May. Then the Republican and Democratic nominees would compete head-to-head in a November election.

The Republican-led committee and its Democratic minority joined forces in support of the proposal, with only one no vote from a Republican representative.

The vote came as Collins, a chief defender of President Donald Trump during impeachment proceedings, is preparing to run against Loeffler, Gov. Brian Kemp's pick for the Senate seat. Kemp appointed Loeffler in December to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson after he stepped down for health reasons. The winner of November's election would serve the final two years of Isakson's term.

The bill sets up a clash between Republicans who support Collins and Loeffler. Meanwhile, Democrats backing the proposal are seeking to unify around one Senate candidate. So far, on the Democratic side, entrepreneur Matt Lieberman and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver are seeking the Senate seat, while the Rev. Raphael Warnock of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church is considering a run.

Supporters of the bill framed it as a way to let political party voters decide on the Senate race.

"If you trust the primary process and if you trust the voters and want to give them the max opportunity to weigh in as members of parties that are an integral part of our process, I would ask you to vote in favor of this bill," said committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, a Republican from Bonaire.

State Rep. Scot Turner, who opposed the bill, warned against changing election rules in a contest where candidates are already campaigning.

“There are going to be a lot of hard choices we’re going to make because of the different sides lining up on this issue,” said Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs. “Don’t interject interparty squabbling into a process that was established.”

Despite Kemp's threat to veto the legislation, House Bill 757, is quickly moving forward. The bill will next be considered by the House Rules Committee before receiving a House vote.