House Speaker David Ralston endorses Doug Collins in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, center, in January addresses the Georgia House, where he served before entering Congress. House Speaker David Ralston, right, has formally endorsed Collins' bid for the U.S. Senate in a November special election. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

State House Speaker David Ralston endorsed U.S. Rep. Doug Collins on Thursday, giving his U.S. Senate campaign support from one of Georgia’s most powerful Republican leaders in a move that could clear the way for other state legislators to rally behind his bid.

Ralston has long tacitly supported Collins over U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, but he made his endorsement formal in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He called Collins a “good man and a great leader who has an even greater energy for public service.”

“It’s in the best interest of our party and our House caucus,” Ralston said. “Doug Collins is a consistent conservative. He doesn’t waver. He didn’t come to his views in the middle of a political campaign. He’s an authentic, genuine guy.”

It was the latest break between Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Loeffler to the job in December and has been her most zealous defender. Kemp and Ralston have clashed over a range of other issues, including legislative priorities and the need for a special session this year.

But one of the biggest rifts between the two Republicans involved Kemp’s pick of Loeffler, a wealthy financial executive, for the prized seat.

A longtime friend and political ally of Collins, Ralston pushed legislation earlier this year that would have forced Loeffler into a primary and could have presumably helped the four-term congressman. That effort stalled after Kemp threatened to veto it.

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Instead, Loeffler faces 20 challengers in a November special election. All candidates are on the same ballot without a primary to filter out nominees, and polls show a jumbled race between Collins, Loeffler and two Democrats in the running: Matt Lieberman and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

If no candidate gets a majority of the vote — which seems all but certain — the two top finishers face a January runoff.

Asked whether the endorsement will further sharpen a divide with the governor, Ralston said he’s hopeful it won’t.

“I respect his authority to choose who he wished to choose last December,” Ralston said. “He has the power to do that. Ultimately, even he would recognize that this is a decision that will be made by the people of Georgia. I respect his position in this, and I hope he will respect mine.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp have had a number of rifts recently. Now, they are backing separate candidates in the state's November special election for the U.S. Senate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Collins-Loeffler fight has sharply divided Georgia Republicans at a time when Democrats are aiming to upend GOP control of the state. But Democrats have so far been unable to exploit the Republican turmoil.

Warnock has a hefty fundraising advantage, a trove of endorsements and a high-profile platform as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. But he’s struggled in recent polls to separate himself from Lieberman, an educator who is the son of a former vice presidential nominee.

That dynamic could soon change, as Warnock has launched an initial volley of ads over the past two weeks that could help elevate his standing. Lieberman, meanwhile, has defied calls to drop out of the race and recently aired his first digital ads of the cycle.

Meanwhile, the Republican-on-Republican feud has divided Georgia GOP circles into separate camps.

Besides Kemp, Loeffler’s main supporters include Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She also has nabbed endorsements from several national figures, including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Collins has responded with endorsements from U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson — the first Republican member of Georgia’s congressional delegation to take sides — as well as former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

Many more Republicans have pointedly remained neutral, reluctant to take sides in the divisive race. They include U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who faces a tough re-election challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff and has repeatedly said he’s focused on his race.

Ralston’s endorsement drew an unusually heated response from Loeffler’s campaign.

Stephen Lawson, her spokesman, called Ralston a “career politician and criminal defense lawyer who abused his power to protect violent criminals, domestic abusers and child molesters.” It was a reference to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into delays of court cases Ralston handled as a private attorney.

“Both are political insiders who care more about their taxpayer-funded paycheck and politics than public safety and service,” Lawson said.

Ralston, for his part, has long ties to Collins. When both were rank-and-file members of the state Legislature about a decade ago, Collins supported Ralston in his first ill-fated attempt to win the speaker’s gavel.

“I really don’t know her at all. I do know Doug. I’ve known him for a long, long time. I know he values the kind of relationships he formed in the House,” Ralston said. “And he understands that to be effective you have to build trust and credibility with other members, and he did that.”

Ralston added that he won’t be “cajoling people to support him or getting mad at people who don’t,” though he indicated other lawmakers may soon follow suit.

“I’m telling people they can choose Doug Collins or they can choose Senator Loeffler or they can remain neutral,” he said. “Time will tell if others will come along, but there won’t be an effort to orchestrate a mass outpouring.”

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