With a sprawling field of candidates now set, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is racing to win over suburban women with the help of a key new backer: former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
The two Republicans stood side-by-side on stage Monday as hundreds of cheering supporters chanted the senator’s name at a Marietta rally that was Loeffler’s first major campaign event since she took office two months ago.
Haley recounted her choice in 2012 as South Carolina's governor to pick Tim Scott to fill an open U.S. Senate seat, drawing a line between her decision-making process and the scrutiny of Gov. Brian Kemp's selection of Loeffler, who was relatively unknown in political circles.
“And right off the bat, she put her marker down on what she wanted to fight for,” Haley said. “But then she went and showed it through her actions. She supported President (Donald) Trump and voted to end the impeachment — and told Congress to get back to work.”
It was perhaps the most significant endorsement yet in the running battle for Republican support between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a messy fight that leaves some conservatives concerned it could pave the way for one of three prominent Democratic contenders to take the seat.
And it came a week after Collins and Loeffler both formally qualified for the seat within minutes of each other at the state Capitol, with dueling press conferences that underscored the bitter rivalry that has forced Georgia Republicans to take sides.
The congressman’s campaign has fired off increasingly brutal broadsides painting Loeffler as a faux conservative who landed the seat because of her pledge to spend at least $20 million.
He's also highlighted reports about her use of a private jet to fly to campaign stops, and he vented about an anti-abortion group's "more than fishy" decision to back her after swelling its coffers with new donations to back an advertising campaign.
“We’re ready for this. Georgia knows who the conservative is,” Collins said in a recent interview. “They’ve been watching what we’ve done for Georgia in Washington. They know that I’ve been fighting for the values they’ve hold dear. We can have those debates. Let’s bring it on.”
Loeffler has largely avoided swiping back, though her allies with the Republican National Senatorial Committee and other groups have filled the void. At Monday's event, she trumpeted her Friday flight to Atlanta on Air Force One with Trump, who initially favored Collins for the seat.
“I’m going to have a positive campaign. I’m going to have a positive agenda that betters the lives of all Georgians,” she said. “Now is the time to unite against the radical left. That’s what I’m going to do — I’m going to make sure everyone knows I’m there working for them.”
Part of Loeffler’s appeal to Kemp was a hope that the former financial executive could win over suburban women who have bolted from the party since Trump’s rise, and she’s likely to place a special emphasis on Haley’s endorsement to further that argument.
“She gets it. She lived it. And she’s going to put that in place in Washington,” Haley said of Loeffler. “The president’s style is not Kelly’s style, right? But at the end of the day, they both agree on the same results: how we get wages up, how we get unemployment down, how do we make retirements fatter.”
Attendees of the rally, held in the cramped confines of the Cobb County GOP headquarters, said in interviews they were worried about a damaging fight between the two Republicans, who are among 21 candidates in the November free-for-all. But several also expressed a hope that a surge of support from women could put Loeffler over the top.
“She’ll be able to do that, but I don’t think it’s her primary quality,” said Suzi Voyles of Sandy Springs, who heads an anti-abortion group that supports Loeffler. “Her business acumen is really what puts her over the top, and that’s what’s going to really impress other women.”
Lynne Garwood came to the event a skeptic, more drawn to Collins, a four-term congressman she’s gotten to know over the years through Republican advocacy work. She left the rally a few hours later a Loeffler convert.
“Previously, I thought she was a little soft-spoken. I thought she didn’t have a lot of conviction. But this morning changed that,” Garwood said. “I was really proud of everything she said. Women are tougher on women than men are, so if she won me over, that’s saying something.”