Georgia’s wild year of politics just got wilder.
After much speculation, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins announced Wednesday morning that he will challenge appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.
Collins’ decision risks splitting Republican support in Georgia at a time when Democratic leaders see their prospects growing to flip seats in Congress and the state legislature.
The campaign comes as Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia also seeks to keep his seat. He has drawn three Democratic challengers.
Along with Collins and Loeffler, the race for Isakson’s old Senate seat includes Democratic candidate Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
The move also opens the race for a third congressional seat in Georgia covering Collins’ Gainesville-based district, following the decisions of U.S. Reps. Tom Graves and Rob Woodall – also Republicans – not to seek re-election.
A Baptist pastor and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, Collins hails from a staunchly conservative part of the state and was President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed Isakson. His tirades against congressional Democrats in defending the president against charges of Russian collaboration and impeachment over Ukraine have raised his national profile over the past year.
“We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president, keep working for the people of Georgia,” Collins said in announcing his candidacy Wednesday morning on the “Fox and Friends” television program.
Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, was chosen by Gov. Brian Kemp last month to finish Isakson’s term. Isakson stepped down at year’s end due to health complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Loeffler has the governor’s strong support, as well as backing from other powerful and well-financed groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The shortsightedness of this decision is stunning,” said NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin. “Doug Collins’ selfishness will hurt David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler and President Trump.”
The wife of a billionaire financier and herself formerly head of a bitcoin company, Loeffler has millions of dollars at her disposal to wage a tough campaign. She has already begun pouring money into campaign ads in recent weeks.
Collins dismissed questions that his candidacy could split the Republican base or fall flat in the face of Loeffler’s financial might.
“We just need to have a process that lets people decide, lets them choose for themselves how they want to see this vision,” Collins said on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday.
Collins’ entry in the race also puts him and powerful supporters like Georgia House Speaker David Ralston on a collision course with Kemp. Ralston threw his political weight behind Collins in the House on Tuesday, calling him a steadfast friend.
“He has stood by me when few would,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I don’t forget things like that.”
Meanwhile, Kemp rallied support for his pick in Loeffler in an emailed statement Tuesday, touting her anti-abortion stance and support for Trump’s agenda.
“Kelly is a life-long Republican who shares our conservative values and vision for a safer, stronger Georgia,” the governor said.
Circling the political fray is House Bill 757, a measure that could pave an easier path for Collins to win the race against Loeffler.
Currently, special elections in Georgia are decided by free-for-all “jungle” primaries in which all candidates – Democratic and Republican alike – compete on the same ballot. The House measure would restore the traditional party primaries in May, followed by a November general election between the primary winners.
If passed, the special-election bill moving through the state legislature would greatly reduce chances for a runoff in a jungle primary, which likely would result in votes being split between several strong candidates all competing at once. The top candidate in the free-for-all format would need more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff with the second-highest vote getter.
The bill looks headed soon for a vote on the House floor. Kemp has already said he will veto it.