Top Georgia Democrats once dreamed of unifying behind one candidate in the race against Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. That seems as unlikely as ever now.
Political newcomer Matt Lieberman proved he can raise significant cash and be a credible contender. Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’ll soon enter the race. And the Rev. Raphael Warnock is said to be taking steps to prepare for a run.
Meanwhile, a handful of other potential contenders are rumbling about a run, raising the prospect of a jam-packed November ticket to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. And more competitors also means more competition for resources.
“While there may be endless enthusiasm for multiple candidates in the special election in the Loeffler seat, there is not a bottomless pit from which to fundraise,” said Kristin Oblander, a veteran Democratic fundraiser.
“The sooner the Democrats can coalesce around a premier candidate,” she said, “the better.”
Normally, a surge of Democrats seeking a U.S. Senate seat wouldn’t unnerve party officials. Democrats had to scramble in 2016 to recruit a millionaire challenger to Isakson just before a key deadline.
But a special election brings different dynamics. Candidates from all parties share the same ballot, with no primary to filter out nominees. And multiple Democrats on the same ticket makes it less likely that one would win the contest outright — and increases the possibility of a January 2021 runoff.
It means that Georgia Democrats will face bitter infighting in twin Senate battles against Republicans armed with the power of incumbency. In Georgia’s other Senate contest, four leading Democrats are dueling for campaign cash, endorsements and attention to challenge first-term Republican David Perdue.
Democratic officials see Loeffler as particularly vulnerable. The wealthy financial executive and novice politician was named to the seat by Gov. Brian Kemp over the objections of President Donald Trump, who wanted the governor to select U.S. Rep. Doug Collins instead.
And Collins has long threatened a run, a prospect that injects uncertainty into the Republican side of the race. While Loeffler has spent the first days in office sponsoring conservative measures and courting Trump, some conservative activists remain skeptical.
The failure to clear the Democratic field has triggered private grumbling from senior officials in the party. Before Loeffler was appointed, top Democrats said they were waiting on Kemp's decision before putting forth a candidate who could match up best with his pick.
But Loeffler's appointment has been known since late November, and the formal announcement came more than a month ago. And still, no Democrat backed by party leaders has emerged to challenge her.
Other Democrats have rushed to fill the void. Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, told the AJC that he has raised more than $700,000 since entering the race in October, sending a signal to party leaders that he could have the resources to mount a credible campaign.
And Tarver said in an interview that he plans to enter the race even if he doesn’t earn the blessing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has for months tried to recruit a top contender for the seat and appears to be focusing on Warnock.
“I am ready. Planning to launch soon,” he said. “Georgia deserves a U.S. senator who has the courage to put our interests first.”
Democratic circles are abuzz with talk that Warnock, who leads Ebenezer Baptist Church, is the favorite of both national party figures and influential local politicians — among them Stacey Abrams, who declined to comment through a spokesman.
Warnock flirted with a challenge to Isakson in 2016 and dropped hints he could soon join the contest. He's said to be talking to consultants to prepare for a possible bid, and several local activists say he's been courted by the DSCC, the political arm of Senate Democrats which has scrambled to find a high-profile contender.
Both Warnock and a spokesman for the DSCC have declined comment.
Tarver, too, passed on the chance to challenge Isakson in 2016 but quickly made it known he was considering a run for the senator's seat after the Republican announced he would step down because of health issues.
His supporters see Tarver, a U.S. Army veteran and former federal prosecutor, as someone who can excite the state's black electorate while appealing to law-and-order moderate voters.
Others are still weighing a run, including DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston and DeKalb Chief Executive Michael Thurmond. Another possible contender, state Sen. Jen Jordan, said Friday that she would not seek the seat.
Some party leaders are hoping more follow Jordan’s example.
"I don't know that it's going to be crowded," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, who heads the Democratic Party of Georgia. "We've got a long time before qualifying. We are going to put our best foot forward because we know our ideas are stronger than Republican ones and we align with more Georgians than they do."
Still, more candidates could be poised to jump in this month.
That’s what Tharon Johnson is predicting. The former top Southern strategist for former President Barack Obama’s presidential bid said candidates will immediately face a test of “how they can build a coalition of Democratic voters while trying to raise the money they need to be competitive.”
“We need to begin the process of identifying a moderate consensus Democrat that can win in Georgia,” added Johnson, an ally of Thurmond’s.
“It has to be someone moderate enough not to scare Republicans but also fire up the base,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to bring out more Democrats and woo disaffected Republican suburban white women.”
Republicans are taking note of the delay. Republican strategist Heath Garrett praised Kemp for a Senate selection that is apparently scrambling Democratic plans.
"I think Gov. Kemp kind of stumped the Democratic Party here," he said.
That may be the case, but Loeffler still faces her own internal turmoil.
Local GOP activists who know little about her say they'll wait to endorse until they see her in action. A pair of polls conducted in December show little consensus among Republicans over Loeffler. And Collins is still threatening a run, saying he'll first wait until the impeachment process concludes.
The grassroots group Conservatives in Action urged him to do just that, saying in a statement that Collins is a "real fighter" who is "not afraid to call out Democrats when they promote bad policy."
The growing field will further twist the campaign. As the race grows more crowded, candidates will have to increasingly plan for a January 2021 runoff that will attract even more national attention — and compete for the same resources.
It will also lead to some politically awkward scenarios. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. Day among them. As he does every year, Warnock plans to preside over a nationally watched service at Ebenezer, the spiritual home of the civil rights legend.
This year, though, a new visitor will be among the hundreds packing the Atlanta church: Loeffler, Georgia's newest senator, and Warnock's possible rival, sent word that she plans to attend.
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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com