Rep. Doug Collins on Wednesday threw his hat into the ring for the Senate contest in Georgia, a move that outraged Senate Republican leaders and roiled an already volatile election.
Georgia is in the unusual position of having both of its Senate seats on the line. Republican Sen. David Perdue is up for reelection and a special election will decide who completes Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.
Mr. Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of President Trump, was long rumored to be eyeing a run to oust Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month appointed her to fill the seat that Mr. Isakson vacated last year because of his failing health.
“We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president,” Mr. Collins said, touting his run in an interview on Fox News.
He talked up his relationship with Mr. Trump, who wanted Mr. Collins appointed to the seat rather than Ms. Loeffler, a Republican.
“I appreciate all his help and support in the past,” Mr. Collins said. “We look forward to working for him and be back in Washington today to do just that.”
His run, however, quickly hit opposition from the GOP establishment. A top official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, said his candidacy creates an opening for Democrats to grab a seat.
“The NRSC stands firmly behind Sen. Kelly Loeffler and urges anyone who wants to reelect President Trump, hold the GOP Senate majority and stop socialism to do the same,” said NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin.
A top official with the Senate Leadership Fund, a leading Senate GOP-aligned super PAC, said they had Ms. Loeffler’s back if she needs them.
“It’s so selfish of Doug Collins to be promoting himself when President Trump needs a unified team and Sen. Loeffler is such a warrior for the president,” said Steven Law, the PAC’s president. “As we’ve said before, Sen. Loeffler is an outsider like Trump, not just another D.C. politician.”
An all-party special election would take place in November to fill out the final two years of Mr. Isakson’s term, though there is legislation pending in the Georgia state legislature that would add a party primary in May.
Mr. Perdue, who is seeking a second term, has thus far attracted less attention. Among a handful of Democratic opponents are Jon Ossoff, who became a media darling during his unsuccessful 2017 congressional bid in which he shattered fundraising records.
Mr. Perdue launched his campaign with conservative guns blazing, including a 2-minute video in which he vows that “the road to socialism will never run through Georgia.”
“Make no mistake about where we are today,” he says on the stump. “We are in an ideological war for the future of our republic.”
The Legislature this week altered the election calendar to that the special election dates mirror Mr. Perdue’s race, a move opposed by the governor.
It is unclear what is driving that new, largely Republican-on-Republican schism in Atlanta.
“One of the things Republicans are most worried about is if it becomes a long, divisive campaign that could turn off voters, especially white, well educated and affluent women, and allow a Democrat to slip in there,” said James Cobb, a history professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. “The longer this goes on and hostilities possibly intensify, the more damage it may do to the Republican leaders.”
Mr. Collins, 53, enters the race with a strong base and considerable name recognition from his prominent role in the House impeachment hearings, where he fiercely defended Mr. Trump.
Ms. Loeffler, 49, a multimillionaire businesswoman and political newcomer, has vowed to spend at least $20 million of her fortune on her election bid.
Ms. Loeffler ran the bitcoin derivatives exchange Bakkt, which is valued at more than $50 billion and is a co-owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream.
Facing skepticism from conservative activists, including doubts about her pro-life position, Ms. Loeffler moved swiftly to shore up support since taking office.
In her first week, she backed three pro-life bills. This week she lashed out at Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican and frequent Trump critic who has sided with the chamber’s Democrats who want to call new witnesses in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.
“Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame,” she tweeted Monday.
Ms. Loeffler has also assembled a formidable campaign team, led by Billy Kirkland, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence and a seasoned Georgia hand who ran Mr. Perdue’s first campaign. She has also added staffers like Stephen Lawson, who worked on Ron DeSantis’ successful Florida gubernatorial race that had Mr. Trump’s strong support.
Still, Mr. Collins’ decision to jump in the race complicates her bid.
“There are a lot of Georgians, Republican and Democrat, who likely don’t know Kelly Loeffler,” said Alan Abramowicz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
While there is speculation surrounding a variety of potential Democratic contenders in the special election, the only declared candidate is Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2020 Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Mr. Lieberman, who is considered a long-shot, immediately aligned himself with the Democratic Party’s far-left base. He voiced support for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, abortion rights and a move toward government-run health care.
Another potential Democrat who could run, but hasn’t declared candidacy is Stacey Abrams. Ms. Abrams is a former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate who has refused to concede to Mr. Kemp in the 2018 race.
While Ms. Abrams lost, the high turnout she mustered gave Democrats hope they can grab at least one of the two Senate seats and, perhaps, put Georgia in the blue column in the presidential race for the first time since 1992.
Georgia has turned more purple since Mr. Trump won it in 2016 by 5 percentage points yet barely cracked the 50% barrier. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats captured another one of the state’s House seats and picked up more than a dozen in the state Legislature.
“Partly because of 2018 and partly because Abrams only lost by a short margin, there’s a feeling that if the Democrats can get the turnout up they have a chance,” Mr. Abramowitz said. “There is a growing minority population and a lot of new people in Georgia.”
The flip side of that goal is Republican turnout, which in the gubernatorial contest failed to match what Mr. Trump generated in 2016. Thus, the GOP is confident, too, that if it can get its voters to the polls it can hold the two Senate seats the Cook Political Report slots as “leans R.”
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