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Republicans could be in for an ugly face-off in the 2020 Georgia Senate race

Trump ally Doug Collins is set to go up against Kemp appointee Kelly Loeffler this fall.

House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump, December 17, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 
Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The Georgia Senate race just got a lot more interesting.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), a top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a prominent ally of President Donald Trump, has officially announced a challenge to sitting Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a businesswoman recently appointed to the seat by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Both will be running in a special election this November, during which the top two candidates will advance to a runoff if no one wins a majority outright. They’ll be competing to serve out the remainder of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, which goes until 2022.

Collins’s decision to pursue the seat revives a rivalry between the lawmakers who were both vying for the position last year.

Although Trump favored Collins, Kemp wound up picking Loeffler, in part because he thought she could help reach suburban women voters in the state who have moved away from the Republican party. Trump’s backers, meanwhile, argued that Collins would better serve the president in the Senate and were wary of Loeffler’s conservative credentials.

Now that Collins is running again, Georgia voters will have an opportunity to decide which of the two they prefer — or if they’re interested in shifting away from the Republicans entirely. Democrats have long eyed Georgia as a potential Senate pick-up opportunity, though they’re still fleshing out potential candidates for this specific seat, according to the New York Times.

While the state is still seen as favorable for the GOP, a question that’s raised by Collins’s decision to enter the race is whether he and Loeffler could split the Republican vote in the special election and elevate a Democrat either to the runoff or as voters’ final pick.

Upon Collins’s announcement, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a scathing statement giving a nod to this possibility. “The shortsightedness in this decision is stunning,” NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin said. “Doug Collins’ selfishness will hurt [Sen.] David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and President Trump.”

Both Georgia Senate seats, rated “Likely Republican” by Cook Political Report, will be on the ballot this year, since Perdue is also up for reelection.

Collins’s and Loeffler’s candidacies, briefly explained

Collins and Loeffler are both staunch Republicans, but their support comes from different wings of the party, which could wind up fracturing for this particular race.

  • Loeffler hasn’t had much political experience up to this point, though she’s an established business leader and longtime conservative donor. (This biography shares similarities with that of not only President Trump but also the state’s other Republican senator, Perdue, who was a businessman before he ran for public office.) Prior to serving in the Senate, Loeffler was the CEO of Bakkt, a company focused on bitcoin, and part-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream.
  • Collins, meanwhile, is currently serving as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and has become known for his impassioned defense of Trump throughout the impeachment inquiry. He’s a three-term member of the House and a veteran of the Air Force who has focused on tech policies like rural broadband during his time in office.

Loeffler has been criticized for being more moderate, and likely sought to prove her ties to Trump by acting as an aggressive backer of the president throughout the impeachment trial. On Monday, she went after Utah Republican Mitt Romney, someone she’s previously supported, when he became more vocal about the push to hear from witnesses.

Loeffler’s appointment was viewed as addressing an existential problem Republicans are facing in the increasingly purple state, a trend that was evident in the 2018 gubernatorial race: Democrats have a strong hold on voters of color and younger voters, meaning Republicans need to keep and grow their share with moderate white women in order to maintain their electoral strength. These exact voters, however, were among the groups who did not back Kemp in his governor’s race, which he won by fending off a runoff narrowly by 15,000 votes.

“The governors’ support in 2018 was very much rural-based and he got clobbered in metro Atlanta and the other urban centers,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock told Vox in December. “A component that moved against Republicans were suburbanites, and particularly white women suburbanites.”

According to CNN exit polls, 53 percent of independent women voted for Stacey Abrams in 2018, compared to 49 percent of independent women who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Similarly, 62 percent of moderates overall backed Abrams in 2018 compared to 57 percent who did the same for Clinton in 2016.

“[Kemp] wants to see the Republican Party in Georgia maintain its margins, and all indications are that those margins are dissipating, primarily due to the loss of suburban white women,” University of Georgia political science professor Audrey Haynes previously told Vox.

Loeffler’s appointment, it seems, is intended to engage more members of this group in a state where elected Republican officials are predominately white and male.

Collins, meanwhile, has been tightly aligned with the president for some time. The Ninth Congressional District Collins represents in northeastern Georgia is rated as one of the most conservative in the state by Cook Political Report — and it’s also one that’s bolstered Trump in the past.

“Rep. Doug Collins represents a district in northern [Georgia] that gave Trump nearly 80 percent in 2016, and he votes accordingly,” John Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball previously told Vox.

Loeffler’s potential strengths with moderate women voters, in turn, highlight Collins’s and Trump’s own weaknesses with them.

The November race will ultimately determine if either candidate is able to capture enough Republican support to stave off the other, while keeping any Democratic challengers at bay.

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