With two Georgia Republicans racing for the Senate, eyes turn to Trump

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins will soon announce a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, setting up a bitter Republican showdown in November that pits one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders against a wealthy former executive backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. (Photo: Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins will soon announce a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, setting up a bitter Republican showdown in November that pits one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders against a wealthy former executive backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. (Photo: Getty Images)

Surrounded by Republican lawmakers on the White House lawn, President Donald Trump singled out a new face Wednesday as he signed a sweeping trade deal into law: Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

“Congratulations, Kelly. They already like you a lot,” the president said, nodding to the Republican senator. “That’s what the word is.”

The race for Loeffler's U.S. Senate seat is set to be an all-out Republican feud between the wealthy financial executive and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who formally entered the race Wednesday. But another scramble is well underway, and it will shape the November race for the seat.

Both Republicans are racing to lock up Trump’s support, hanging on every retweet from the president, every conversation with members of his inner circle, every sign that the White House might be taking sides.

So far, the president has stayed publicly neutral — although Trump privately lobbied Gov. Brian Kemp to tap Collins for the seat on three separate occasions before he appointed Loeffler to succeed retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Both candidates need no reminding of the power of Trump’s endorsement. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week pegged the president’s approval rating among Georgia Republicans at over 90%.

And Trump’s surprise Twitter endorsement of Kemp in 2018 helped him score a runaway victory over then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a better-financed opponent who was also jockeying for the president’s support.

Now, both Loeffler and Collins will quickly look to ramp up their campaigns for the November election with one eye on Trump’s social media feed.

Collins, a four-term congressman with grassroots support, is relying on his close ties to the president to elevate his campaign. As the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Collins became one of Trump’s top defenders against impeachment and landed a constant platform on cable TV.

His campaign announcement, aired on Fox News early Wednesday, reinforced that strategy. Asked whether he would land Trump’s endorsement, Collins said he was striving for it.

“That’s up to the president,” he said, adding: “I appreciate all his help and support in the past.”

A few hours later on the White House lawn, Loeffler thanked Trump for the "shoutout" and repeated her pledge to back his agenda. Her campaign added in a statement that she "remains unapologetically supportive" of Trump and his policies.

“Already she’s delivering conservative results for hardworking families in the Peach State,” her campaign spokeswoman said. “And that’s exactly what she’s going to keep doing.”

A GOP rift

The Republican rift heightens the possibility that a unifying Democratic candidate can win the race outright, since the race is a special election with no primary to filter out nominees.

Still, there’s a move afoot by Collins’ allies in the Georgia House who are pushing legislation that would require a primary ahead of the November election to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term. That would help Collins, who polls show is far better known than Loeffler among conservatives in Georgia.

The governor has threatened to veto the legislation, which has wide support among Democrats who are eager to avoid the possibility of a January 2021 runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. Georgia Democrats have a dismal record in recent overtime races.

Though Collins told “Fox & Friends” he was not worried about sparking a divisive Republican feud with Loeffler, partisans are already taking sides. Loeffler’s allies quickly warned that Collins’ decision could make Georgia an even bigger battleground target for Democrats.

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which traditionally sides with incumbents, said the “shortsightedness” of Collins’ decision will hurt both Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is also running in November, seeking a second term.

“All he has done is put two Senate seats, multiple House seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play,” said Kevin McLaughlin, the group’s executive director.

Kemp, meanwhile, avoided direct mention of Collins at a Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering near the Georgia Statehouse. But he touted Loeffler’s record in her first weeks in office.

“I am proud of what she’s accomplished so far, and I know she will continue to fight for our state. She doesn’t owe anybody anything in Washington, D.C.,” he said, adding: “We need somebody fighting for us every single day.”

Democrats have their own internal commotion to sort out. Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur, and Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor, plan to qualify. And the Rev. Raphael Warnock will try to position himself as the front-runner with support from leading party figures if he enters the race.

Collins' appearance on Fox News, where he has become a nearly daily presence, came a day after he declined to address Georgia reporters about his bid during a visit to the Statehouse. He said a "bigger" local rollout would be scheduled soon.

“We fought for the president. We fought for our state. And we fought for this country,” he told the network. “And we’re going to continue to do that. I look forward to a good exchange of ideas and I look forward to this election.”

Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.