Loeffler vs. Collins fight sets off dash for GOP support

Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins

A few weeks ago, anti-abortion activist Marjorie Dannenfelser declared that Kelly Loeffler should be "disqualified" from serving in the U.S. Senate. On Friday, at a women's clinic in Cobb County, she called the newly appointed Republican senator a "model" of leadership who represents "true feminism."

“You have my pledge that we will do everything necessary to get you there,” Dannenfelser told Loeffler after touring the clinic with her and Gov. Brian Kemp, “and we love you very much.”

The dramatic reversal is the most startling example of the scramble underway to lock up support in the messy Republican-on-Republican race that pits Loeffler against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman and favorite of some grassroots conservatives.

The ultimate treasure in the race for endorsements is President Donald Trump, who could effectively end either campaign with a few strokes on his smartphone. But the president has not yet weighed in, aside from praising both candidates and suggesting he could find a compromise to clear the field.

In the interim, both Republicans are scrambling to lock up consolation prizes: prominent Georgia leaders, national figures and Washington-based conservative groups such as Dannefelser’s organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, that can pump money into the race or help shore up grassroots support.

There’s even a behind-the-scenes fight over vendors. Collins’ longtime pollster, John McLaughlin, hasn’t signed up with the congressman’s Senate campaign under pressure not to work for Republicans challenging incumbents. Neither has the consulting firm that he hired for previous House runs.

Loeffler, who is backed by Kemp, has a hefty head start in the race for endorsements. She kicked off her campaign with support from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, triggering a chain reaction that led to the abrupt resignation of his top political adviser.

In recent weeks, Loeffler has nailed down support from the likes of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The Georgia Life Alliance, a local anti-abortion group, has announced a $3 million spending spree to support her bid.

And the Club for Growth, an anti-tax Washington-based organization, has already unleashed two attack ads assailing Collins’ voting record. One highlights his support for a spending bill that raised the debt limit, the other scrutinizes his vote for a farm package backed by the state’s agricultural powers.

Playing catch-up, Collins has nabbed some of his own well-heeled allies as he courts Trump and his inner circle. State House Speaker David Ralston, one of Georgia's most powerful politicians, supports Collins and engineered an ill-fated attempt to force a primary vote that could have helped the congressman.

And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who as a presidential candidate won Georgia's 2008 primary, announced his support for Collins this week. Huckabee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was impressed by the congressman's "against-all-odds" fight against the Democratic-led impeachment of Trump.

The GOP infighting contrasts with the Democratic side of the contest, a free-for-all special election in November that features multiple candidates with no party primary to pick out nominees.

Backed by Stacey Abrams, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has quickly cornered the Democratic market. In the past week, a string of influential state lawmakers and powerful groups backed his campaign, including U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and Jason Carter, the party’s nominee for governor in 2014.

"A lot of people have worked with him in the past. He's really made a mark in the progressive community in Atlanta," said state Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta lawmaker who quickly sided with Warnock.

“It was absolutely a no-brainer. Clearly, you want to coalesce behind one candidate,” she said. “And I’m not alone — we want to put our weight early behind the strongest candidate.”

And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Warnock the day after he announced his campaign, essentially giving the political newcomer the support of the national party’s establishment.

That’s left his two rivals — educator Matt Lieberman and former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver — bereft of high-profile supporters and under pressure to drop out of the race. Both have vowed to compete through November.

Awkward positioning

While many Georgia Republican officials are starting to take sides, voters are still just tuning in.

“It was bold of Brian Kemp to go against what the president wanted and appoint her to this office,” said Connie Peacock, a Coweta County sales executive. “It will be interesting to see what she can accomplish.”

Still, the Republican-on-Republican feud has made for some uncomfortable situations for Georgia conservatives.

The Club for Growth's first attack on Collins, which began airing last week, targeted the congressman's vote in support of a sweeping federal farm package that was backed by Trump, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Kemp.

Adding to the awkwardness: Records show Loeffler's family farm in Illinois benefited from the aid, collecting more than $1 million in federal subsidies since 1995.

The fight over vendors, meanwhile, has trickled into campaign rhetoric. Collins said that the “same D.C. establishment political swamp” that tried to stop Trump is after him, while his aides describe themselves as a scrappy band of political veterans competing with Loeffler’s larger machine.

Then there was Dannenfelser, who in late November, as word spread that Loeffler was Kemp’s favorite to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, shot off a stinging jab at the financial executive.

Highlighting Loeffler’s stint on the board of Grady Memorial Hospital, she called the Atlanta-based safety-net facility a “training ground for abortionists” and said her ties with the hospital should “disqualify her from representing the state in the U.S. Senate.”

Grady, the largest trauma care provider in the state, said through a spokesman that it does not perform elective abortions and hasn’t for at least a decade. And Loeffler’s allies swiped back.

Jay Morgan, a lobbyist who is the former executive director of the Georgia GOP, called Dannenfelser's criticism "character assassination." And Kemp characterized the mounting pushback as "ridiculous" and said he "could care less what the political establishment thinks."

On Friday, Dannenfelser was eager to cast that tiff in the rearview mirror. She praised Loeffler’s support for a trio of anti-abortion measures stalled in Congress that her organization supports.

“The concerns that I had were concerns that bubbled up from the rumor universe,” Dannenfelser said, adding that she was “surprised by joy” once she met with Loeffler.

And Loeffler touted four anti-abortion proposals she’s co-sponsored since taking office in January.

“After one month on the job,” Loeffler said, “I hope Georgians now know that as a Christian, pro-life conservative, I will always defend life.”