The entry of staunch White House ally Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) into the Georgia Senate special election throws a wrench into what will already be a wild year in state politics.
Collins officially announced his bid Wednesday to challenge Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.), who's less than a month into her tenure after Gov. Brian Kemp (R.) appointed her to fill retired senator Johnny Isakson's (R.) seat.
Kemp tapped Loeffler, a wealthy conservative businesswoman and political novice, in spite of President Donald Trump's personal lobbying for Collins, the top House Judiciary Committee Republican and the face of Trump's defense during televised impeachment hearings.
Georgia Democrats are hopeful about splitting the GOP vote and winning Loeffler's seat, but a Georgia Republican operative told the Washington Free Beacon the situation for Republicans is not as dire as it might appear.
"I think it adds a lot of complications and that's the real downside for Republicans here," he said. "I don't think it's a disaster across the ticket."
Loeffler attempted to head off Collins and convince skeptical Trump supporters that she's on board with the White House, saying the day of her appointment she was "pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall, and pro-Trump."
She's blasted Democrats for impeaching Trump, cutting an ad against impeachment on Jan. 17 as part of a $2.6 million buy to introduce herself to Georgians. She also bashed Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah), to whom she donated more than $750,000 in 2012, over his call for witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial.
"Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It's time to move on!" Loeffler tweeted Monday.
After 2 weeks, it’s clear that Democrats have no case for impeachment. Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on! #gapol
— Senator Kelly Loeffler (@SenatorLoeffler) January 27, 2020
Trump's endorsement in the Republican primary propelled Kemp to a landslide win over then-lieutenant governor Casey Cagle. Kemp went on to narrowly defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election.
Kemp appointed Loeffler in a bid to appeal to suburban women who have abandoned Republicans in the Trump era.
Now, Kemp is facing a test of his political strength after a well-received first year in office. He could find himself on the other side of a Trump endorsement if the president throws his weight behind Collins. When an AJC reporter asked Kemp about Collins on Tuesday, the governor "pursed his lips and shook his head."
— Greg Bluestein (@bluestein) January 28, 2020
Collins's entrance could create a schism in Republican politics, both in Georgia and nationally.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) signaled approval for Kemp choosing Loeffler, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund announcing they would back her. She's pledged to spend a minimum of $20 million of her own money on the race.
"We can't allow Democrats to make Georgia a battleground for the Senate majority and the presidential election," Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law said in response to Loeffler's appointment. "Kelly Loeffler has what it takes to hold this seat. We are excited about Loeffler’s candidacy, and if she needs our help, we’ll be there."
NRSC chair Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) told reporters the NRSC is watching the race closely and would support Loeffler. Asked if Collins's entry will put the seat in danger, he replied, "We're going to hold the seat."
Then NRSC chair Todd Young walked out. Asked if Doug Collins challenge to Loeffler concerned him.
"It's something we're certainly watching closely. And as you might expect, we'll be supportive" of Loeffler.
Does it put the seat in danger?
"We’re going to hold the seat."
— Mike Warren (@MichaelRWarren) January 28, 2020
Collins will be a formidable opponent if his high-profile allies and strong polling are any indication. Pro-Trump Fox News host Sean Hannity openly campaigned for Kemp to pick Collins. Hannity even called the representative "Senator Collins" during an interview on Dec. 4.
Collins counts Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner among his advisers, and Donald Trump Jr. headlined a fundraiser for him. Collins's central role in the Trump impeachment saga has kept him in the spotlight.
A poll this month from left-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Collins with a 40-point advantage over Loeffler among Georgia Republicans, a testament to both his appeal to the state party's base and her lack of name ID. A new AJC poll found 57 percent of all Georgians didn't know enough about Loeffler to form an opinion.
GA SEN primary poll (PPP):
Rep. Doug Collins: 56%
Sen. Kelly Loeffler: 16%
not sure: 27%https://t.co/3zEMPav4pm
— Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) January 7, 2020
There is no single-party primary for the Georgia Senate seat. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in November, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff in January 2021, regardless of party. Kemp said he will veto a bill pushed by Collins allies in the House to create party primaries for the special election.
Educator Matt Lieberman, son of former senator Joe Lieberman, is already running for Senate on the Democratic side, and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver said he plans to enter the race. However, Abrams ally Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church will likely become the Democratic frontrunner when he announces his expected bid.
In addition to the race for Loeffler's seat, Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.) is up for reelection in 2020, and some Democratic White House contenders are eyeing Georgia as a possible, if unlikely, state to swing from red to blue in the presidential election.
The GOP operative told the Free Beacon the development with Collins could wind up negatively affecting Democrats like Jon Ossoff who are challenging Perdue. Perdue will be tough to beat given his solid favorability ratings and a robust Georgia economy.
"How is Jon Ossoff going to get involved in attacking Senator Perdue when the sexy story right now is Loeffler versus Collins?" he asked. "I would just say that it's pretty clear that's going to dominate non-Trump political discourse in Georgia for the next 10 months. The idea that he's going to be able to get a message out … that's a big, big question mark."
UPDATE: 7:42 A.M.: This article was updated to show Collins had officially entered the race.