Georgia Senate Race With Trump Allies Facing Off Encouraging to Democrats

February 28, 2020 by Dan McCue

It’s the race President Donald Trump hoped would never happen.

When Sen. John Isakson announced last summer that he would be vacating his seat at the end of the year due to health reasons, the president was sure he had the perfect replacement — four-term Rep. Doug Collins, an ardent Trump backer and the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

However, despite Trump’s lobbying, Georgia’s governor, Republican Brian Kemp, instead chose businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to temporarily fill the position, with an election to fill the remainder of Isakson’s term set for the fall.

Loeffler immediately announced her intention to run for election. Meanwhile Collins, whose profile rose considerably in GOP circles after he became one of the president’s most vocal defenders during the House impeachment inquiry, said he too will run for the seat.

That has set off alarm bells amongst Republicans who fear that a bitter fight between GOP candidates could lose the party the seat and make it one step more likely Democrats could seize control of the chamber.

Republicans will be defending 23 seats in November, compared with 12 for Democrats. A net pickup of four seats by Democrats would guarantee them the majority for the first time since 2005.

Last week, Trump, who has praised both Loeffler and Collins, even went so far as to try to entice Collins to abandon his bid, floating the idea of making him a candidate to become the next U.S. spy chief.

Hours later, Collins rejected the offer, re-affirming that he would be “running a Senate race down here in Georgia.”

So far, however, Loeffler, largely an unknown entity to most Georgians, has the jump on her GOP challenger.

Charles Bullock, distinguished professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, said Loeffler is already running two television ads across the state, introducing herself to voters, and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth has invested $3.5 million in two ads attacking Collins.

“There’s also an anti-abortion group that is running an ad against Collins … and Collins is nowhere to be found, suggesting he doesn’t have the money to respond,” Bullock said.

“So what you’re seeing is opponents of Loeffler and Collins working with a general election intensity, nine months before a vote is cast, and this just for a special election,” he said.

The Georgia contest isn’t a typical Republican primary that chooses a nominee to run against a Democrat. Instead, multiple candidates from both parties compete in a wide-open “jungle primary” on Nov. 3.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will be set for Jan. 5.

“If both Loeffler and Collins stay in the race it pretty much ensures there’s going to be a run-off,” Bullock said.

While Republicans hold a statewide edge in voting, some in the party worry an extended Loeffler-Collins battle could divide GOP voters and make it easier for a Democrat to win.

Right now, the leading Democrat in the race is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to preach.

A political newcomer, he’s already snagged the endorsements of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Stacey Abrams, who has been Georgia’s most influential Democrat since she narrowly lost the race for governor to Kemp in 2018.

Two other Democrats, Matt Lieberman and former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, have announced Senate campaigns.

Bullock said with Trump at the head of the ticket and a high-profile race for the senate grabbing people’s attention, Republican voter turnout in Georgia should be high this year.

He notes though that the seeds of the Loeffler-Collins race were planted by developments that have been much more favorable to Democrats in recent years.

Bullock said Kemp’s appointment of Loeffler came after an unconventional candidate search. In fact, the governor literally put out the word, “If you’re interested, send me your resume.”

More than 500 hopefuls did, some of them members of the state legislature, some who simply had money and an inclination to dive into politics.

Bullock said the word in Georgia is Loeffler waited virtually until the last moment to put her name in contention.

Loeffler owns the WNBA’s Atlanta team and is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, parent firm of the New York Stock Exchange.

She has also served as chief communications and marketing officer for Intercontinental Exchange, which operates global commodity and financial products marketplaces, and later was CEO of Bakkt, an ICE unit that trades Bitcoin futures.

Bullock said Kemp’s choice basically came down to wanting a senatorial candidate who could appeal to suburban voters and particularly the college-educated suburban women who have been migrating away from the GOP in recent years.

“Let’s face it, the 2018 elections were not good for Republicans,” he said. “So the thinking may very well have been, Loeffler provides an advantage here that Collins can’t provide, and it’ll help the president to have her on the ballot in 2020.

“At the same time, if Loeffler survives the contest this fall, she’ll have to run for re-election and her own full six-year term in 2022, the same year the governor is up for re-election, and that could prove very helpful to him,” Bullock added.

“In recent years, Republicans in Georgia have been relying on the rural vote. A Loeffler win could give them renewed life in the suburbs,” he said.

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, agreed with that assessment and said Kemp realizes that relying on the rural vote is not a strategy for long-term success given Democratic gains the last few election cycles.

“For instance, the north Atlanta metro suburbs are extremely competitive,” she said. “So I think what you’re seeing here is the ramifications of a decision made in the larger context of a national narrative … one in which suburban areas are becoming more Democratic.

“Kemp wants to regain some kind of strength in the suburbs. I think that is what his calculation was … that, and that Doug Collins is too much of a firebrand to be tolerable to this critical group of voters,” Gillespie said.

That reasoning hasn’t mollified Collins supporters, who see Loeffler as anything but politically tested and question her credentials as a Trump Republican.

Collins’s backers have also raised questions about possible conflicts of interest involving Loeffler’s work as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The committee has jurisdiction over some aspects of Intercontinental Exchange businesses.

“Doug Collins certainly has a base and a following among very established Republicans in the state, and Loeffler is right to be working quickly to define herself before Collins and his backers do,” Gillespie said.

But whether this division among the Republicans ultimately benefits the Democrats is an open question.

‘We probably won’t have a true sense of that until the summer,” Gillespie said. “Right now Georgia is perceived as being a very competitive state, but I think we’re a long way from knowing whether one of the Democratic candidates can win an outright majority.

“What the Democrats don’t want is for Collins and Loeffler to each get 25% of the vote in the jungle primary and the three Democrats to get 15% to 17% and wind up in third place and out of the running.

“What I think will happen is that by summer, Georgia Democrats will conclude that only one of their candidates has a real chance of surviving into the runoff and there will be a coming together behind that person,” Gillespie said. “Then we’ll just have to wait and see which version of Republicanism actually prevails.”

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