Collins sets aim at the conservative vote in his U.S. Senate bid

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Editor’s note: This profile of Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins is the first in a series of stories about major candidates running in November’s special election to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Other stories in the series focus on Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrats Matt Lieberman, Ed Tarver and Raphael Warnock.

GAINESVILLE — U.S. Rep. Doug Collins could peer out in the crowd at a recent rally in his hometown and see Georgia Republican royalty. There was a former governor, an ex-congresswoman, prominent donors and grassroots activists backing his U.S. Senate bid.

It’s the type of support that usually befits a clear favorite in the Republican race. But this is no ordinary election, and he and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler have split the Georgia GOP into dueling factions in their pursuit of a November special election win. Collins, a four-term congressman, is just fine with that.

“Right now, there are a lot of ads out there. They think I’m not a conservative. There’s three people who know the truth: Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi,” he said of the House Democratic leaders, before diving into another angle.

“If I’m going to fight for this president, this administration, this country, I’m also not going to sit back when someone attacks me. I’m going to fight back,” he said. “You gonna lie about me? I’m going to tell the truth about you.”

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His ire was not aimed at the Democrats in the Senate race. He’s largely ignored the three top Democrats sharing the 21-candidate ballot with him. He’s focused almost singularly on Loeffler, and she’s trained most of her attention on him, turning their piece of the race into a slugfest over conservative ideals.

There’s strategic reasoning for their approach. Both Collins and Loeffler expect only one Republican to emerge from the free-for-all in November and face a Democrat in a January runoff. But he also chafes at being blamed for dividing the party by challenging Loeffler.

In interviews and campaign rallies across the state, he frames himself as the authentic conservative in the race — and Loeffler as a bandwagon Republican tapped by Gov. Brian Kemp in part because of her huge checkbook.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

And though President Donald Trump hasn’t taken sides in the race — he recently told an Atlanta audience that he welcomes the bitter fight because it could drive up overall GOP turnout — Collins has used his perch on the House Judiciary Committee to cast himself as the White House’s most ardent ally in Congress.

Rapid fire

When Collins speaks, it takes a transcription service to keep up. His words tumble out of his mouth in a rapid fire, like an avalanche from his lanky 6-foot-4 frame. It’s a style he’s honed since his childhood in rural Georgia.

The son of a Georgia state trooper, Collins' first taste of Washington politics came while serving in 1987 as an intern for then-Georgia U.S. Rep. Ed Jenkins. Downtime was spent courting his future wife, Lisa, and daydreaming of one day holding congressional office.

He spent 10 years as a Baptist preacher at a Gainesville church, and in 2008 he did a tour of duty in Iraq where he ministered to soldiers recovering from injuries. He also built a law practice that’s come under fire from Loeffler and her allies because it took cases from court-appointed defendants charged with violent crimes.

Over three terms in the Georgia House, he became Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leader and helped shepherd a controversial overhaul of the HOPE scholarship through the Legislature.

When a new northeast Georgia congressional seat came open in 2012 after redistricting, Collins won a brutal GOP runoff before a 52-point victory in the general election. It’s one of the most Republican districts in the country, and he quickly carved out a conservative record.

One of Collins' first votes was against increasing flood insurance claims to Hurricane Sandy victims if they were not offset by spending cuts elsewhere. He was one of 33 Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceiling.

‘A different route’

Trump’s rise in national politics changed Collins' trajectory. Though he initially supported Scott Walker’s campaign, he soon emerged as one of Trump’s most ardent supporters — and a favorite of Fox News cable TV hosts.

Such was their tight relationship that Trump privately lobbied Kemp at least three times to choose Collins for the seat vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson before the governor picked Loeffler instead. After dropping hints about running anyways, Collins formally entered the race in January.

Since then, Collins and Loeffler have tried to cede no ground on the conservative flank, even if it means those hard-right positions could come back to haunt either one of them in a January runoff.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Both have tied themselves to Trump and just about every facet of his agenda, though Collins has sprinkled his calls with demands for a federal investigation of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and for FBI Director Chris Wray to resign after a break with the president.

Much as Kemp won a statewide race in 2018 running to the party’s right, Collins believes Georgia is still a fundamentally conservative state, and that Republicans will reward him for his stances.

In the closing stretch, he’s aired an ad featuring his daughter Jordan, who suffers from a severe form of spina bifida, praising his anti-abortion stance. And he adds a dash of homespun humor on the campaign trail to connect with conservative audiences.

“I’m a trooper’s kid. I learned how to shoot before I learned how to ride a bike,” he told a crowd in Eatonton. “Gun control to me is hitting what you’re shooting at.”

Polls show a seesaw affair with Loeffler, with some giving her a slight edge and others showing the race too close to call. The two have split up Republicans, with Kemp’s circle rallying to Loeffler while other party figures — including former Gov. Nathan Deal and state House Speaker David Ralston – line up behind Collins.

But where Loeffler’s advantage really shows is in her campaign bankroll. She’s shelled more than $16 million on TV ads; he’s spent just a fraction of that sum - roughly $1.3 million - and is casting himself as a scrappy David facing a wealthy Goliath.

“The governor chose to go in a different route, but that’s OK,” he said in Gainesville. “Because the way I figure, he’s got one vote. And in November, we’ve got 5 million.”