'If we're busy tearing ourselves apart in September and October, we could lose,' former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
A Republican congressman's decision to challenge freshly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler is pitting two visions of the GOP's future against each other. So far, it's divided voters and been anything but polite.
Loeffler, 49, is a wealthy businesswoman and political newcomer who filled a vacant Senate seat in January after being appointed by Georgia's governor. Top Republicans hope she'll help the GOP lure back suburban women, a pivotal voting bloc that's fled the party in dismay over Donald Trump's crude behavior and hard-edged policies.
But among those challenging Loeffler in a Nov. 3 special election is Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman popular with the GOP's conservative base. Collins, 53, who makes frequent appearances on the right-leaning Fox News Channel, was one of Trump's fiercest defenders during the impeachment fight as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and he's portraying himself as more conservative and loyal to Trump than Loeffler is.
Against the backdrop of this year's presidential and congressional elections, the showdown looms as a test of which path makes sense for the GOP in a red-leaning state where Democrats have carved robust inroads. It's also left many voters struggling to make up their minds.
“Doug Collins has got a track record. Kelly is an unknown product,” said Tony Casteel, an electrical contractor from Marietta, a bustling suburb in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta. "But you know, I understand why Gov. Kemp appointed Kelly. He’s trying to reach out to suburban women. Cobb County has gone blue."
The fight has fed GOP worries of a battle that could wound Republicans in Georgia this fall. Trump, GOP Sen. David Perdue and the state's 14 House seats will also be on the ballot.
Instead of separate party primaries for Loeffler's seat, Georgia has lumped all candidates into a single contest Nov. 3. If no one receives half the vote, there will be a Jan. 5 runoff between the top two vote-getters, no matter their affiliation.
Republicans fret that a drawn-out battle between Loeffler and Collins will bloody both, leaving a Democrat unscathed and likely qualifying for the runoff. That could be the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is backed by Washington Democrats and is pastor of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
“If we’re busy tearing ourselves apart in September and October, we could lose Sen. Perdue and lose the state for the president and lose" Loeffler's seat, too, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in an interview. Gingrich is backing Loeffler.
Republicans control the Senate, 53-47. Democrats will need to gain at least four seats to capture the majority if Trump is reelected, one less if he’s not. Democrats' chances of winning control seem uphill, and GOP-held seats in Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina are considered more at risk than Georgia's.
The faceoff between Loeffler and Collins has been intense.
On Thursday, the executive director of Senate Republicans' official campaign arm — which supports Loeffler — retweeted a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the organization was warning top GOP Senate aides to steer clear of a fundraiser Collins had planned for early March.
Kevin McLaughlin, who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tweeted Thursday that Collins' campaign was a “kamikaze mission” whose staffers don't “give a damn about irreparable harm they’re doing to Collins or POTUS,” the acronym for president of the United States. The campaign committee is allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Loeffler supporter.
As the Senate considered two GOP bills Tuesday curbing abortions — doomed votes that Collins' backers suspected were aimed at letting Loeffler burnish her conservative credentials — Collins' campaign was running digital ads. They accused Loeffler of backing abortion rights and said, “She should re-file to run as a Democrat."
The spots cited a 2018 promotion by the WNBA — Loeffler owns the Atlanta Dream, one of the women's basketball league's teams — in which money was distributed to groups including Planned Parenthood. One of Collins' ads included a doctored picture of Loeffler holding out a handful of cash under Planned Parenthood's logo.
Loeffler, who declined requests for interviews, spoke on the Senate floor during Tuesday's abortion debate.
“I pray that the American people will recognize that lives hang in the balance," she said. She voted for both Republican bills to curb abortions.
Loeffler's supporters accused Collins of lingering resentment over his failed attempt to persuade Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to select him for the vacant seat. Collins had Trump's support for the appointment, but it went to Loeffler.
In a reference to that episode, spokesman Jesse Hunt of the Senate campaign committee called Collins “everything Georgians hate about Washington: a swamp creature drunk off the bitter taste of sour grapes.”
The committee also greeted Collins’ entry into the race by warning it would do no business with his political consultants if they stayed with him. The organization, which spends over $100 million every election cycle, has for years had a policy of protecting incumbents against GOP challengers.
“We’ve had to overcome the establishment from trying to kill us off, threatening our vendors,” Collins said in an interview. “We’re moving right ahead.”
Loeffler took office Jan. 6 to replace GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, 75, who retired in faltering health. She has stressed messaging focused on support for Trump and conservative causes like gun rights and building a wall along the Mexican border.
Loeffler, whose husband runs a company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, has pledged to spend $20 million of her own money on the campaign and already has ads blanketing TV.
“Kelly will invest whatever it takes to win,” said spokeswoman Caitlin O'Dea.
McConnell has urged Trump to endorse Loeffler, according to one GOP consultant, while another said McConnell has told Trump he will back her no matter what Trump does. Both Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, and both said Trump gave no clear indication of what he will do.
Loeffler's supporters have tried persuading Collins to abandon the race, to no avail. In one suggestion that the White House has sought an alternative, Trump told reporters last week that he was considering nominating Collins as national intelligence director. That idea didn't bear fruit.
Republican presidential candidates have carried Georgia since 1996. Even so, the state’s suburbs, echoing the rest of the nation’s, have turned increasingly blue, which along with growing populations of Hispanics and other minorities have made Democrats more competitive and Republicans nervous.
“It’s no secret that Republicans have been hurting among college-educated women in suburban communities across the nation, and Atlanta is filled with college-educated suburban women voters,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
In Collins' hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, retirees Angela and Louis Spear said they supported Collins. “He’s been real effective in the House, and he’s done a great job during the impeachment hearings,” said Louis Spear.
Karyl McBurnett, a Republican from Rockmart, Georgia, said she was leaning toward Loeffler. She said Collins’ familiarity among conservatives was irrelevant.
“It’s what they stand for and the changes that they want to make,” McBurnett said.