With three major Senate candidates, Georgia political landscape erupts

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (from left to right), Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (from left to right), Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

In the span of a few days, Georgia’s U.S. Senate race exploded into one of the nation’s wildest political contests, pitting some of the most powerful politicians in the state against each other in a fight that could last into next year.

The contest between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, plus several others in the mix, is expected to shatter spending records and could determine control of a closely divided Senate.

The trio of candidates are backed by some of the most formidable — and familiar — rivals. Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, adversaries in the epic 2018 gubernatorial race, will clash once again through proxies. And House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican with a stormy relationship with Kemp, is again at odds with the governor over his pick.

National figures will surely throw their weight around. Collins and Loeffler are already racing to curry President Donald Trump's support, scrutinizing every stray remark for signs of approval. With Abrams' help, some of her party's most prominent figures are rallying behind Warnock, whom she quickly endorsed.

And voters will be caught in the crossfire, forced to parse the policies and proposals from the three candidates and their other rivals in a volatile race that seems to offer another twist by the day. At the same time, those voters will also be dealing with another U.S. Senate campaign, several open U.S. House races, contests for every seat in the Legislature and — for good measure — a presidential election.

“It’ll probably result in a runoff, but it is what it is,” said Cynthia Pruitt, a 60-year-old retiree from Temple. “I always feel like we’re about to be inundated.”

Torn up

Already, the simmering tension of the race has spilled over to complicate negotiations in the Legislature on the budget, teacher pay raises and election law.

It's put U.S. Sen. David Perdue, facing his own re-election battle against three prominent Democrats, in an awkward position. Does he pick sides or remain on the sidelines? The same pressure awaits other GOP officials and grassroots leaders who must navigate new battle lines in the Republican-on-Republican feud.

January 29, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (left) and Governor Brian Kemp greet during the 7th Annual Legislative Lunch at Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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And the maneuvering has opened another U.S. House seat, this one in Collins’ deeply conservative North Georgia district, that will lead to even more politicking in a year already chock-full of it. It’s the third Republican-held U.S. House seat in Georgia vacated within the past year.

“In my 28 years in politics, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Rufus Montgomery, a veteran lobbyist and political analyst. “All these open seats, two U.S. Senate races, a presidential election. It just shows you how charged everything is in Georgia.”

And it has left voters conflicted, particularly Republicans who aren't terribly familiar with either of the two GOP candidates on the Senate ballot. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed both Collins and Loeffler are far from household names, even among die-hard conservatives.

“What I’m concerned about is that they would both lose to a Democrat — or someone else not qualified,” said Renee Creel, a 55-year-old admissions counselor torn between Collins and Loeffler.

Boiling over

The falling dominoes shook up a Senate race that was already poised to attract heaps of national attention, in part because of the complicated path that Loeffler took to her coveted seat.

After U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson announced in August that he’d soon step down, Kemp embarked on a months-long search for a successor. He found her in Loeffler, the co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise whose husband runs the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange.

The governor was drawn to Loeffler in part because she's a business executive who he believes could help bring more women into the GOP fold. Her personal fortune — she's pledged to spend at least $20 million on her bid — didn't hurt.

January 28, 2020 Atlanta: Georgia House Rep. Terry England (left) and House Speaker, David Ralston (right) listen to U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) address the Georgia House on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 as its Chaplin of the day. This coming just hours after news broke that Collins is preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and avoided any mention of seeking a higher office. In his sermon and closing prayer, Collins honored Rep. Jay Powell, the House Rules Committee chairman who died in November and who Collins described as a mentor. Speaker David Ralston signaled his support of the soon-to-be senate candidate, stopping short of an explicit endorsement. Collins and Ralston have a strong relationship dating back to their time as state house colleagues; Collins voted for Ralston’s speakership while deployed in Iraq. “He is my friend. He has stood by me when few would,” Ralston said.”And I don’t forget things like that.” JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM


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But there was a downside to his unconventional pick. Trump had forcefully lobbied the governor to select Collins, a four-term congressman and one of the president's most ardent defenders in Congress. And Collins has a devoted base of support and powerful allies, Ralston among them.

After weeks of flirting with a run, Collins made it official with an appearance on Fox News that featured sharp criticism of the Democratic-led impeachment of Trump that made him a star in conservative circles.

With Collins' decision, a Statehouse gripped by a tug of war between Kemp's demand for a teacher pay raise and Ralston's insistence on income tax cuts got a new twist. Soon, Ralston pushed legislation that would have forced Loeffler into a damaging primary, then abandoned it as Kemp promised a veto.

The rivalry between the governor and the speaker has spilled over to other issues, big and small, as Ralston warns of lengthy and uncomfortable budget negotiations.

“In weddings, they tell you to speak now or forever hold your peace,” Ralston said last week at a gathering of mayors, urging them to unload on Kemp’s spending plan. “I’m telling you much the same this morning. Because soon it will be too late.”

Enter Warnock, who bided his time for weeks. He launched his campaign a day after Collins with a video that tracked his upbringing in a Savannah housing project to the pulpit at Ebenezer, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Most of the women I know that usually vote Republican wouldn’t be caught dead voting Republican in this election,” said Karen Regale, a 70-year-old Atlanta retiree who said she’s “100 percent” supporting Warnock.

“I plan to contact him and ask what I can do to help,” Regale said. “He’s just outstanding. He’s got integrity, he’s got the ability to listen.”

Nonetheless, the launch didn't impress his two leading Democratic challengers, who both plan to stay in the race despite pressure from state and national Democrats to drop out. Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur with a political pedigree, and Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor, both vow to keep campaigning.

‘Two campaigns’

Collins, Loeffler and Warnock have a long campaign ahead. Since it’s a “jungle” special election to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term, there’s no primary to hash out party nominees and narrow the field of candidates.

That raises the likelihood that no candidate will win outright in November by getting a majority of the vote — and that the top two contenders will be forced into a January 2021 runoff. First, though, each has to calibrate his or her campaign to make it that far.

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Credit: Branden Camp / Special

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Credit: Branden Camp / Special

If Loeffler’s primary goal was to appeal to suburban voters who are uneasy with Trump, Collins will shake up her playbook. Now she can’t dare let a sliver of a daylight stand between her and the president lest she give Collins a wider opening.

“The question is: Can Kelly Loeffler run two campaigns at the same time?” said Heath Garrett, a former deputy to Isakson who is neutral in this race. “Can she appeal to the base and appeal to moderate, independent voters? It’s difficult, but it can be done.”

As for Collins, he must build a statewide operation with the likelihood that he’ll be outspent 10-to-1 — if not vastly more. And he must placate activists who worry that his bid makes Georgia an even bigger target in 2020 by dividing Republicans at a tricky time.

Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Cobb County GOP, worries about a repeat of a 2017 special election for a state Senate seat where warring Republicans split the vote and two Democrats landed in the runoff.

“The Democrats played it much closer, and the result was we eliminated ourselves from the runoff,” he said. “I think we are looking at an opportunity where history may repeat itself.”

Democrats can’t quite delight in the all-out Republican feud yet. Warnock is an untested political candidate who faces doubts from his own party and attacks from conservatives who will try to quickly brand him as a “socialist” in the minds of voters. He’ll have to prove he can raise the cash he needs to compete in a race with little room for error.

“The brewing political civil war inside the Republican Party between the governor’s pick and Trump’s pick is creating a unique moment,” said Fred Hicks, a political strategist. “Democrats can pick up that seat, but only if they play it right.”