For Loeffler, now the hard part: Uniting fractious Republicans

As Republicans gathered to watch election returns Tuesday, they had three rival parties to pick from. U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue staged bashes at Buckhead hotels across the street from each other. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Loeffler’s archrival, staged his rally at a Lake Lanier resort.

The competing events underscored the challenge Loeffler faces trying to unite a GOP riven by internal fissures over her candidacy. After she handily defeated Collins in a 20-candidate special election, she now must marshal divided Republicans against Democrat Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff.

Both Republicans almost immediately called a truce when it became clear Loeffler secured the second spot in the runoff. Loeffler’s camp praised Collins' passion. Collins encouraged Republicans to defeat Warnock, whom he labeled a “disaster for Georgia and America.”

But putting aside the vitriol might not be so easy. Georgia’s top officials divided into dueling factions over the race, with House Speaker David Ralston enthusiastically stumping for Collins while Gov. Brian Kemp’s top political allies, as well as powerful Senate Republicans, embraced Loeffler.

Nor will it be simple for Loeffler to move beyond the bracing rhetoric she used to defeat Collins to woo a broader audience. The incumbent labeled herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun,” the most loyal supporter of President Donald Trump in the Senate and embraced QAnon candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene.

And the brutal back-and-forth between Loeffler and Collins – which began even before Kemp appointed her to the seat in December – allowed Warnock to consolidate Democratic support free of GOP backlash.

Still, Loeffler enters the next phase in a position of strength. The grueling special election helped transform her from a politically-untested financial executive to a formidable U.S. senator who bested a veteran lawmaker with a deep well of grassroots support.

Expect her to more aggressively highlight her business background - rather than her ultra-conservative business record - in the next stretch of the race.

“Get ready for a kinder, gentler Attila the Hun,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

She also proved she was willing to put her personal fortune behind her campaign, a major reason why Kemp picked her for the coveted seat vacated by retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. She and her husband, financial magnate Jeff Sprecher, combined to spend more than $30 million to promote her bid.

That money fueled an onslaught of ads – some warm-and-fuzzy spots, some scathing attacks on Collins – that began inundating voters shortly after she was sworn in. And her outspoken stances against the Black Lives Matter movement helped her compete with Collins on an issue that energized conservatives.

Her victory over Collins came within hours of polls closing. She bested the four-term congressman among absentee ballots, defeated him across metro Atlanta and outpaced him in the important Republican-dominated Cherokee and Forsyth counties.

And she came within a few percentage points of Warnock, a first-time candidate and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church who had a softer-than-expected performance.

Though he’s had much of the year to build his name recognition and focus on a broad-based message, Warnock tallied roughly one-third of the vote – far below some polls suggested.

His standing wasn’t undercut by Matt Lieberman, the son of the former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman who was targeted with by an extraordinarily public campaign by state and national figures to leave the race.

He was challenged instead by former Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson, who earned more than 300,000 votes in a below-the-radar campaign.

Warnock, too, has hurdles ahead. Republicans have won every statewide runoff vote in Georgia history, an unbroken string that started in 1992 when Republican challenger Paul Coverdell notched a narrow win over Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.

But Democrats aim to snap the streak next year, fueled by a surge of new voters.

“We’ve seen record-setting fundraising support incredibly dynamic, thoughtful candidates,” said Stacey Abrams, one of Warnock’s chief allies. “They’re engaging and energizing the electorate. We’ll be able to meet the moment.”