Collins, one of President Donald Trump's most high-profile House defenders, showed up in Atlanta as a proposal to change the way Georgia conducts its special Senate election this year has exposed divisions in the allegiances of statehouse Republicans.
GOP Gov. Brian Kemp has threatened to veto any election changes ahead of what will be the debut campaign for Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman and political novice appointed by the governor to replace recently retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. Meanwhile, powerful state House Speaker David Ralston, also a Republican, praised Collins at the Capitol on Tuesday as a loyal friend and ally.
“He has stood by me when few would, and I don’t forget things like that,” Ralston said of Collins. Isakson's retirement from the Senate at the end of December set up a political scramble for his seat. Collins openly lobbied for the appointment, with support from Trump.
When Kemp chose Loeffler to fill the seat until a November special election, the governor outraged many Trump loyalists for what they perceived as defiance of the president. Collins is expected to announce that he will challenge Loeffler for the seat, a Republican official said Monday. But Collins refrained when he was swarmed by reporters Tuesday outside the chamber of the House, where he had been invited to speak as the honorary chaplain of the day.
“For the other question many of you may be asking, there will be more coming later,” Collins told reporters. The decision by the four-term lawmaker could complicate the GOP's chances of holding onto the seat as Republicans battle to retain their Senate majority in this November's elections.
Under current Georgia law, Loeffler and any challengers would all compete Nov. 3 in a free-for-all special election that could include multiple Republicans and Democrats. If no one wins a majority of the vote, a runoff would be held in January.
But a proposal moving through the state House would add party primaries, like those held in normally scheduled elections, to choose a single Republican and Democratic nominee ahead of the November election.
Facing Loeffler head-to-head in a GOP primary could give an advantage to Collins, who frequently appears on Fox News Channel and has wide support among conservatives. Primary contests also appeal to many Georgia Democrats, who see a one-on-one race with Loeffler or Collins as their best chance of winning the Senate seat.
Loeffler was chosen in part for her ability to appeal to a wider range of voters in a general election, particularly women in metro Atlanta suburbs that were once solidly Republican but have become more competitive. Though still not well known to may Georgia voters, Loeffler has also pledged to spend up to $20 million of her own money on the campaign.
The bill to add party primaries to Loeffler's race received bipartisan support among state lawmakers in a House committee vote Tuesday. Ralston, the influential House speaker, also voiced support for the measure.
But Kemp is already threatening to veto the proposal, which would have to pass the state House and Senate. “You don’t change the rules at half-time to benefit one team over another," Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said in a statement Monday.
Since her appointment, Loeffler has tried to guard against a challenge from the right by positioning herself as a true Trump conservative, emphasizing strong positions on gun rights and building a wall along the border and criticizing the impeachment process.
On Monday, Loeffler chastised Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, tweeting: “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!”
State Sen. Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega, said Collins had his support. “He’s got a lot of support over the state and now in the nation," Gooch said. "He’s become a leader in Washington. Doug has really been a champion for the president in the impeachment.”
Requiring party primaries in the race could also benefit Democrats, who haven’t fared well in recent runoff elections. The state Democratic Party hopes to coalesce behind a single candidate in the race.
Democrats Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Southern District under President Barack Obama, and Matt Lieberman, the son of former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, are running. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church — where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached — is also said to be considering a bid.
Associated Press staff writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.