Nathan Deal backs Doug Collins bid for Senate in Georgia

Deal: Senate seat ’cannot be bought.’
Former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Feb. 11, 2020, in Atlanta during the dedication of the new judicial center named for him in honor of his contributions to criminal justice reform in Georgia. (credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Feb. 11, 2020, in Atlanta during the dedication of the new judicial center named for him in honor of his contributions to criminal justice reform in Georgia. (credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Former Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed Doug Collins’ bid for U.S. Senate, making him the most prominent state Republican to support the four-term congressman’s challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a nasty fight that has divided the Georgia GOP.

The former governor endorsed Collins on Monday at a private fundraiser in Gainesville, the same north Georgia city where both Republicans launched their political careers. It further highlights a split in the state party between Collins and Loeffler, the top GOP contenders in a messy 21-candidate November special election.

Deal’s endorsement is his highest-profile foray in politics since he left office in 2019 after two terms as governor – and a break with his successor, Gov. Brian Kemp, who tapped Loeffler to the open U.S. Senate seat and has marshaled his political allies behind her campaign.

“I know that the governor had to make a tough choice, but I’ve made my choice, too, and that’s Doug Collins," Deal said. “A Senate seat representing the state of Georgia cannot be bought.”

It also comes as little surprise: Deal accompanied his wife, Sandra, last month to a Collins event in Gainesville where she and other Republican women endorsed the four-term congressman’s campaign. At the time, Deal declined to comment on whether he would follow suit.

Loeffler, a former financial executive, has promised to spend at least $20 million to defend the seat in November, when she’ll face Collins and other challengers in a free-for-all with no party primary to filter out nominees. That race appears certain to end in a January runoff between the two top vote-getters.

Collins has been unable to match Loeffler’s financial firepower, and she has flooded the airwaves with attacks on his record in Congress and TV spots promoting her as one of President Donald Trump’s top allies. Deep-pocketed allies have added to the ad onslaught.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins

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He’s countered by framing himself as the authentic conservative in the race – and cast Loeffler as a faux Republican who abused her office for personal gain with stock transactions ahead of the economic fallout of the pandemic. She’s dismissed the criticism, and investigators have cleared her of wrongdoing.

Deal’s endorsement coincides with ramped-up campaign activity from the two candidates. Both have featured high-powered supporters at campaign stops around the state, including a Loeffler tour with visits from Kemp and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. Collins has punched back with his own influential supporters, including House Speaker David Ralston and former Rep. Karen Handel.

(Handel and Deal were arch-rivals in the 2010 race for governor, a bruising affair that ended with Deal’s narrow runoff victory. Handel, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, has since made up with Deal and the two both shared kind words for each other at the Gainesville event last month.)

Collins’ supporters hope Deal gives his campaign a boost in north Georgia, the most reliable vote-rich Republican stronghold in the state. Deal represented much of Collins’ northeast Georgia district in Congress for nearly two decades, and left office as governor in 2019 with high approval ratings.

It’s not the first time Deal has bucked Kemp. He reluctantly endorsed Kemp’s rival days before the 2018 GOP runoff, saying then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was the candidate he trusted not to undo “the good reforms that we’ve put in place.” He later sided with Kemp after his runaway victory over Cagle.

The brutal Collins-Loeffler fight has sharply divided Georgia Republicans at a time when Democrats are aiming to upend GOP control of the state. So far, Democrats are struggling to exploit the GOP turmoil.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Raphael G. Warnock speaks in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Warnock is the senior pastor. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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The Rev. Raphael Warnock has a hefty fundraising advantage, a trove of endorsements and a high-profile platform as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. But he’s only recently begun to distance himself in polls from Matt Lieberman, an educator who is the son of the former vice presidential nominee.

Warnokc’s poll numbers are trending upward as he intensifies an ad campaign and steps up in-person events. Lieberman, meanwhile, has defied calls from party leaders and grassroots activists to drop put of the race.

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 Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

Many more Republicans have remained squarely on the sidelines, reluctant to take sides in the divisive race. Among them is U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who faces a tough challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff and has repeatedly said he’s focused on his race.