There was no political honeymoon for newly-appointed Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler this week as she gained both a serious Republican and Democratic challenger. Less than a month into her tenure, Rep. Doug Collins announced he'd challenge Loeffler from the right. Meanwhile, Democrats wooed a top recruit in Rev. Raphael Warnock, the African-American pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, into the contest.
This race isn't a traditional primary followed by a general election, which will decide the winner, though. Instead, all those three candidates — and likely several others — seeking to fill the remaining two years of former Sen. Johnny's Isakson's term will run in a jungle primary on November 3, 2020. If no candidate receives a majority (which seems all but certain), the top two finishers will advance to a runoff on January 5, 2021. That means that depending on how other competitive races fall, it may take two months after Election Day until party control of the Senate is known.
There had been a push in the Georgia legislature this week to try and force regular party primaries in June — a move which would have immediately boosted the better-known Collins, who enjoyed a surge in fame with his passionate defense of President Trump amid the House impeachment, over the political newcomer Loeffler. It also could have helped Democrats by ensuring they not only have a candidate in the general election but that it's most likely Warnock who would advance, given the short time frame.
That effort, however, seems likely to fail. And Collins's entrance this week upset national Republicans enough they freely admitted it would endanger their hold on the seat.
"The shortsightedness in this decision is stunning. Doug Collins' selfishness will hurt David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and President Trump. Not to mention the people of Georgia who stand to bear the burden of it for years to come. All he has done is put two senate seats, multiple house seats, and Georgia's 16 electoral votes in play," National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Kevin McLaughlin said in a statement.
Collins, in very Trumpian terms, tweeted back that such an accusation was "FAKE NEWS."
An expensive and brutal primary that now will span nine months is exactly what national Republicans wanted to avoid. But Collins getting in has long seemed all-but-certain given the increased visibility he gained during the House impeachment hearings as the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. The four-term congressman emerged as one of the most ferocious defenders of President Trump during contentious witness testimony. That's one of the reasons Trump and his allies had pushed for Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint Collins, a pastor, military chaplain and lawyer to the seat after the well-liked Isakson announced he'd step down at the end of 2019 due to health concerns.
Instead, Kemp — who was boosted in his own 2018 primary by a Trump endorsement — held a wieldy application process for those interested; Collins was the only sitting representative to apply, while Loeffler submitted her application on the final day.
Kemp's rationale in picking Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, and GOP donor, was that she could appeal to voters in the state's fast-growing suburban areas that have been turning the once solidly red Georgia into being on the brink of a swing state. For more of Loeffler's personal and political background, check out Jennifer Duffy's article just after Kemp announced her appointment in early December.
Instead, as soon as Loeffler was in the Senate, she had to begin to inoculate herself against conservative skeptics. Her first TV ad, which began airing the week of January 14, ticks off her opposition to impeachment and her support for Trump's order to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. She's also signed onto several anti-abortion bills in the Senate and this past week attacked Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — whose 2012 presidential campaign she donated to — as trying to "appease the left" by wanting impeachment witnesses. The consequence of having to shore up her right flank so much with stalwart support of Trump could further alienate those same suburban women Loeffler's appointment was supposed to be attractive to — especially in the growing Atlanta suburbs, where Trump significantly underperformed Romney.
Loeffler's main weakness is that people in the state don't know her, especially Republican voters. National Republicans think the $20 million (and maybe more) of her own money she's pledged to spend will fix that. And she's already been doling it out early. According to data from Advertising Analytics, through the week of February 11, she will have already spent nearly $2.3 million on TV ads alone. However, she doesn't fully come across as natural or at ease in her ads yet, though a second spot that highlights more of her rural upbringing and faith.
The biggest wild card is what Trump does in this primary. National Republicans are confident that the president understands the magnitude of a unified front behind Loeffler as critical for protecting their Senate majority, and either will endorse Loeffler or remain on the sidelines. It didn't seem by accident that on the day Collins announced his bid, Loeffler got a Rose Garden shoutout from Trump. Still, as it's been proven time and time again, no one can predict what Trump will do. And many Republicans in Georgia fully believe Collins wouldn't be undertaking this challenge if it wasn't with a tacit blessing from Trump and his closest allies, so an unexpected tweet repaying one of his staunchest allies in the House wouldn't be shocking either.
Collins starts off with many advantages against Loeffler, as early polling has shown — though most of that only shows he's better known and better liked among Republican voters, which isn't the sole dynamic they'll each face due to the all-party primary. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, conducted Jan. 6-15 by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs shows a majority of all voters haven't formed an opinion yet on either Republican. Still, Collins's numbers are better — about 35% favorable to 18% unfavorable, compared to 22% favorable and 20% unfavorable for Loeffler. When it comes down to just Republicans though, Collins has a nearly 53% favorable rating, with 41% undecided. Loeffler's approval sits at about 31%, though she has plenty of room to grow, with almost 60% of Republicans undecided.
The NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund have already signaled their strong support for Loeffler. And the two establishment groups also got an unusual ally in their effort against Collins in the Club For Growth, which says they plan to spend $3 million hitting him on TV.
But this could come down to D.C. Republicans versus Georgia Republicans. Several Georgia GOP sources underscored that Collins is well-liked among state lawmakers, having served in the legislature for six years. And many noted that Loeffler has yet to do the type of outreach to state and local party officials she'll need to do to curry favor. While they're skeptical of Loeffler, they more than one described Collins as a "rockstar."
Meanwhile, the challenge for Democrats is to unite around one candidate, and they think they've found that in Warnock, who earned the coveted endorsement of 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams upon his announcement. For the past 14 years, he's led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father also pastored, and in the years since has been known for its social justice activism. Warnock has pushed for more black voter registration and supported Medicaid expansion. In his intro video, Warnock talks about growing up in public housing in Savannah to attending Morehouse College and eventually preaching from the same pulpit King did.
There are several other Democrats in the race — most notably businessman Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut senator and 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, who's already spent about $25,000 on digital ads. He reported raising $700,000 in the 4th quarter of 2019. And former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver has said he'll run too regardless of Warnock's interest, which has the potential to divide the African-American vote. Still, Warnock will have the highest-profile and most national backing and appears likely to coalesce major support quickly.
All these dynamics — long and protracted attacks between Collins and Loeffler and the entrance of Warnock — make it clear that this race is moving up the list of GOP headaches and Democratic opportunities, giving them yet another seat in their path to a majority. With its rapidly changing demographics, Georgia is a state that will be contested at the presidential level, and also sees Republican Sen. David Perdue running for re-election. But this is the more competitive race of the two, so we are moving it from Likely to Lean Republican