By Jim EllisJan. 30, 2020 — Reports had become rampant over the past several days that north Georgia Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) was going to challenge appointed incumbent Kelly Loeffler (R) in the upcoming special US Senate election. Just two days ago, Rep. Collins said that he “has no comment … for now,” when asked about his statewide intentions. However, yesterday he confirmed that he would indeed run for US Senate in 2020.
It was clear that Collins had wanted the Senate appointment that Loeffler received, and reports toward the end of the selection process indicated that the final choice was largely between him and Loeffler. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) chose Loeffler, it is reported, in part to promote a woman who he believed could attract more Republican votes in the suburbs, in addition to her family’s substantial wealth giving her a major start-up advantage in campaign resources.Rep. Collins was President Trump’s strongest defender in his position as ranking Republican Judiciary Committee member during the impeachment hearings, and Trump made no secret of his wish to see the congressman appointed.
In the meantime, Democrats have two candidates, with a third on the political horizon. Businessman Matt Lieberman is the son of 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee and former Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman. Former US Attorney and Georgia state Sen. Ed Tarver is also in the Democratic race, while Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor for Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once served as co-pastor with his father, is poised to enter the race.
The special Senate election is different for Georgia in that it features a jungle primary that will run concurrently with the general election (Nov. 3). If no one garners an outright majority, a run-off election on Jan. 5, 2021 will ensue. There is a serious move in the legislature, however, to change the calendar and make the special election wholly consistent with the regular election schedule.
Clearly, the Collins forces support a partisan primary. Such a structure would definitely provide him a boost since he has a solid base within the party because of his strong public defense of President Trump.
Rejecting the current special election calendar also has Democratic support. With three candidates, some within the party fear that their contenders could split the smaller Democratic base vote, thus allowing both Loeffler and Collins to advance into the run-off. Going to partisan primaries would ensure that a Democratic candidate would have ballot position in the general election.
Gov. Kemp says he would veto any such calendar-altering bill that reaches his desk, but there is a reasonable chance an override vote would prevail. The scheduling-change bill passed its first policy committee with unanimous Democratic support and only one Republican member in opposition. If this pattern continues, the parties, joining together, would have enough legislative muscle to nullify any move that Gov. Kemp might entertain.
Assuming the election calendar remains in place, some anonymously quoted Republicans are apparently making the argument that with Collins entering the race,it would result in Georgia potentially flipping into the Democratic column for the presidential contest. This point has no legs. With Collins in the race, the conservative base segment he has been cultivating would have even more reason to vote. Therefore, if anything, President Trump would likely be helped by two strong Senate candidates publicly embracing him so strongly as both Rep. Collins and Sen. Loeffler are currently doing.
In a partisan primary vote, where the turnout would be lower than the full participation election we are about to witness, Rep. Collins would stand a better chance of energizing the conservative base to the point of making the electoral difference. He is still likely to do very well with the rural conservative vote, but within a general election turnout model, should the schedule remain intact, this number becomes less consequential as part of the overall voter pool.
There is no doubt, however, that Sen. Loeffler will have the financial advantage. With millions of her own to spend on the race in addition to the incumbency edge that positively affects fundraising, she will clearly have more in the way of campaign resources. She has already committed to spend $2.6 million on an early statewide media buy, and the commercials are currently airing. The senator is also indicating that she would expend as much as $20 million of her own money for her campaign.
The Loeffler strategy is to start early and fully embrace President Trump. She is doing so in her ad messages by attacking the impeachment proceedings and making strong public presidential support statements as a matter of internal Senate positioning. The goal is to weaken Collins’ inherent advantage with the Trump base in Georgia, but as her plan moves forward, does Sen. Loeffler’s standing among moderate suburban Republican women, of which she is supposed to attract, weaken? The unfolding campaign will largely determine the answer.
With so many moving parts, this unusual Senate race could move in many directions. Candidate filing is scheduled for March 6 as the prelude to a May 19 primary. If run-offs are necessary because no one obtains 50 percent in the respective intra-party contests, those elections would occur on July 21. Therefore, if the legislature is going to change the electoral calendar, they must act quickly.