Georgia may be a bipartisan battleground in 2020, but the special U.S. Senate election on the ballot Tuesday has become an all-out sprint to the right for the two leading Republicans in the race, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s latest poll shows Democrat Raphael Warnock leading the field with about 34% of the vote, with Collins and Loeffler following at 21% and 20%, respectively. If no candidate wins a majority on Election Day, the top two finishers will head to a January runoff.
But as Loeffler and Collins fight bitterly for GOP votes now, they’re pushing each other further and further away from the middle ground that either will need to win in the end.
A Kemp appointment
Gov. Brain Kemp picked Loeffler to succeed ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in December, banking on her potential appeal to suburban Atlanta women and her ability to largely finance her own campaign as a multimillionaire financial services executive.
But Collins wanted the Senate appointment badly, and he decided to challenge Loeffler for the seat even without the governor’s blessing.
“The governor decided to put us in a difficult position, and that’s fine,” Collins said in an interview after a rally for supporters Thursday on the Alpharetta town green. “We’re having a primary on Nov. 3. Normally we should have had this in June and we’d never have these questions about ‘What do you do when you wake up on Wednesday?’ ”
Loeffler’s team rejected the notion that Kemp is responsible for the Georgia GOP’s family feud.
“Kelly had the opportunity to get to 50% + 1 in this election,” Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson said. “But Doug Collins' ego made this race into what it is — and everyone knows it.”
The result has been an intraparty clash, with caustic attacks and dueling claims over who is the most conservative and most “pro-Trump,” even as 50% of Georgians say they disapprove of the job President Donald Trump is doing in office.
Fight for the Right
Loeffler’s campaign for Republicans can be summed up with her now famous ad proclaiming that she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun.” Her stump speeches detail her background growing up on a farm and going into business, as well as a list of base-pleasing legislation she’s introduced on everything from guns to China. She also rips Collins as a “failed politician” and a declaration that she has a “100% Trump voting record.”
Collins answered Loeffler’s assault on his eight years in the U.S. House by calling her a “fake farmer” and declaring that Georgia “is not for sale.”
More importantly, he launched his own “Trump Defender Bus Tour,” a statewide trek across Georgia named after his role as the lead Republican in the House impeachment trial, when Collins defended the president against allegations of seeking foreign campaign influence and corruption.
Republican strategists point to Collins' star turn in the impeachment proceedings as the reason for his stubborn success against Loeffler, who has outspent him more than 5-to-1 through her own campaign and by a magnitude greater once outside spending is factored in.
It’s also the reason Dan Merkel, a member of the Alpharetta City Council, chose to support Collins.
“I felt what he did to stand up for President Trump in the Judiciary process, it said a lot to me,” Markel said. “I also think there’s some resentment anytime somebody spends $50 million of their own money, you kind of feel like maybe they’re, they’re buying it.”
But Loeffler has support in the grassroots, too.
“I believe that CEOs of companies are better qualified as governors and senators and president than somebody who’s just a politician,” Tony May, a small businessman, said as he waited in line to meet Loeffler at Bare Bones Steakhouse in Buford.
May said he also opposes Collins because of the ads he’s seen attacking Loeffler. “You’re telling me about the competition, but you’re not telling me anything about what you’re going to do for my state.”
As bruising and expensive as the election has been — Loeffler has spent $23 million of her own money against the Collins campaign’s $4 million total — in many ways the real work begins after Election Day, when one or both Republican campaigns head to the January runoff looking to expand their candidate’s appeal beyond the GOP base to Georgia’s increasingly diverse electorate.
Collins says he’s ready with a message about the work he did on the criminal justice bill he passed with Trump, the need for greater broadband access for the state and how to bring back the economy.
“When you start talking about the nuts and bolts of the people having a job, having business, I believe that’s how you connect people,” he said. “People are very aware of where we have our partisan primaries, but after that you come together and you find ways of agreement.”
Loeffler said she’ll be able to appeal to Georgians of all stripes because she’s not a politician. “I’m a businesswoman. I’ve lived the American dream,” she said. “That’s why we have to make sure that we put Americans at the center of our policymaking, not the government, not socialized medicine, not the Green New Deal, not high taxes and excessive regulation that crushes jobs and opportunity that lifts everyone up.”
But along with the lofty rhetoric, Georgians should expect even more raw, bare-knuckle politics in the runoff. The fight for the middle will include attacks on the left, and especially on Warnock if he is one of the two finalists in the race.
“Let’s be honest, Raphael Warnock has flown under the radar,” Lawson, Loeffler’s spokesman, said as he detailed portions of the Democrat’s past sermons as senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church that Republicans have already signaled they will dissect and criticize.
Despite the fact that Warnock is leading both Republicans by double digits, Lawson added, "That’s completely out of step with what Georgians want.”
What Georgians want will become more clear on Election Day, and even more so as the special election barrels toward its final, and likely ugly, January finale.