When two prominent Georgia Republicans decided to run for the same U.S. Senate seat this year, Republicans didn’t expect a kind, gentle contest.
But many also didn’t anticipate what the race ultimately became: a bitterly personal, scorched-earth brawl between Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins that has frayed friendships, scrambled delicate political loyalties in Georgia, and split high-profile Washington Republicans, including President Donald Trump himself. Even worse for the Georgia GOP, the infighting has potentially cleared a path for a Democrat to beat them both.
The two have attacked each other on every possible front. Loeffler has painted Collins as a self-interested swamp creature who secretly loves liberals and is squishy on the things conservatives care about. Collins has done the exact same thing, adding in a dash of corruption, owing to revelations of Loeffler’s stock sell-offs around private COVID-19 briefings.
Collins’ friendships with Democratic lawmakers have been an issue. Loeffler’s ownership of an Andy Warhol print of Mao Zedong has been an issue. Each has sought to outdo each other in professing their love and loyalty to Trump. And each has accused the other of being a secret ally of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee turned U.S. senator from Utah, and the sole Republican vote to convict Trump during his impeachment trial.
Amid all the intra-party sniping, Collins and Loeffler, and the various deep-pocketed outside groups backing their respective candidacies, have largely ignored the Democrat in the race, Raphael Warnock. That’s left him with months to define himself for voters free from the sort of scorched-earth campaigning on the other side of the aisle. And it’s made Warnock not just a contender but, for some political prognosticators, the outright favorite to win the seat.
The GOP has seen many nasty primaries before and considered them a normal, even healthy, part of the process. But the structure of this Georgia contest has changed the usual calculus. Loeffler and Collins aren’t only running against each other: they’re just two of two dozen candidates competing in the so-called “jungle primary,” where the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to a January runoff election if no candidate cracks 50 percent on Nov. 3.
Once upon a time, Republicans thought that both their candidates could be strong enough to nab the top two spots amid a divided Democratic field, ensuring the seat remains in GOP hands no matter what. But Democrats have consolidated around Warnock, a preacher and an activist, as their preferred candidate in the race.
The effect has been dramatic, according to public polling of the race. Just three months ago, Monmouth University’s poll found Loeffler and Collins neck-and-neck, with Warnock at 9 percent, a distant third. But on Wednesday, Monmouth found a seismic shift: Warnock had jumped to 41 percent, with Loeffler at 21 percent and Collins at 18 percent.
It’s universally accepted now that only one Republican will make it into the runoff. And there’s a growing concern within the party that whoever does may be too defined by their race-to-the-right bloodbath in the jungle primary to credibly appeal to the political center of this purple state. This may especially be the case for Loeffler, whose heavily self-funded campaign has blanketed airwaves with ads touting her supposedly hard-right politics. Last month, she ran an ad claiming she was more conservative than Attila the Hun, the bloodthirsty fourth-century European war chief known less for his conservative ideals and more as the “scourge of all lands,” as a contemporary historian put it.
“Loeffler’s ads to win this primary within the special have defined her in a way that will be hard to walk back in two months,” said one Georgia Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the race candidly.
“People will remember the Attila the Hun ads,” the Republican continued. “Transitioning to ‘Atlanta businessperson who will help rebuild the economy’ becomes a lot harder because Collins hasn’t had nearly as much money, he hasn’t defined himself into a corner.”
Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the GOP in Cobb County—a bastion of Republican votes in the state—is, like many party officials, publicly neutral on the race, and told The Daily Beast he likes both Loeffler and Collins. “It’s like any kind of inter-party fight, it’s becoming nasty on both sides,” Shepherd said. “There is a lot of time to heal.”
Republicans in Washington generally agree with this assessment and believe that, as in times past, the party will ultimately unify when faced with a binary choice versus a Democrat.
For other prominent Georgia Republicans, however, this race has been too brutal for there to be a prospect of healing. Debbie Dooley, who co-founded the Atlanta Tea Party, is an outspoken Collins supporter and frames the race as a choice between the conservative grassroots, represented by her candidate, and the corrupt Republican elite, represented by Loeffler.
Anyone who thinks that there’ll be an easy consolidation in Georgia after Nov. 3, said Dooley, is “smoking crack.”
“I’m a lifelong Republican activist since 1976, and I just cannot support Kelly Loeffler. I’ll have the red flu and sit at home if she’s the nominee,” she said. “If you’re voting with lesser of two evils, you’re still voting for evil.”
That sort of intense intra-party acrimony has split Georgia Republicans just as Democrats captured enough momentum to give them a shot at their first U.S. Senate victory in the state in 20 years. This week, political forecasters at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved both U.S. Senate contests from “lean Republican” to “toss up.”
A relative political unknown outside of Georgia, Warnock’s rise in the polls has produced a steady stream of cash and a string of high-profile endorsements, including famous Georgia politicians such as former president Jimmy Carter, the late Rep. John Lewis, and Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the state house of representatives who narrowly lost a gubernatorial election in 2018.
After Warnock posted modest fundraising totals for much of the year, the Democratic small-dollar donation engine has revved up for him: in the first two weeks of October alone, he raised $4.6 million dollars, bringing him to nearly $22 million for the cycle, according to federal campaign finance reports.
“There’s no doubt Warnock has benefited from raising big bucks, having the luxury of telling his story and having no one lay a glove on him,” said Brian Robinson, a longtime GOP strategist for Georgia politicians. “It has given him an artificially high favorability rating.”
What gives some Georgia Republicans hope is that the stakes of the runoff could be so dramatic that all Republicans would have to consolidate behind whichever candidate ends up in the runoff. That’s because control of the Senate could come down to Georgia: If neither party has a clear majority after Nov. 3, Georgia’s two Senate races—both likely to head to runoffs scheduled for January 5—would decide control of the chamber.
“Republicans will be motivated to turn back out for either candidate in January because so much is on the line,” said Robinson. “There will be a reset the day after the election. There has to be.” He also warned that the eventual winner should immediately begin redefining themselves to appeal to a broader electorate—a process that “must be accompanied by outside Republican groups beginning to pour molten lava on Warnock and begin to chip away at his favorability ratings,” he said.
The outside cavalry will come, even if top GOP groups in Washington have spent the last year torching Collins. But a post-Nov. 3 reset for either candidate could be hard. The Attila ads are one thing. But each has courted support from the fringe: Loeffler was endorsed this month by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a likely Congress member-to-be from Georgia whose violent rhetoric and QAnon flirtations have made her radioactive in GOP circles from Georgia to D.C. The two appeared together at a rally this month by riding onto a suburban lawn in a military-style Humvee.
Always a staunch conservative during his time in the U.S. House, Collins, meanwhile, all but celebrated the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month as a win for the anti-abortion cause, and has broadcast his endorsements from open QAnon supporters.
The right turn is particularly ironic for Loeffler, whose appointment to the seat by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in late 2019 was seen as a sign that the party wanted to compete in an increasingly diverse, purple Georgia. The owner of Atlanta’s pro women’s basketball team and a fixture in wealthy, moderate Republican circles, Loeffler was not intended to run as a hard-right fire-breather.
Or, as the Collins campaign put it, “she was a quiet little corporate liberal who was fine with flag protests and diversity slogans until she fell behind in her Senate race. Now she’s trying to be Attila the Hun.”
What Loeffler did indisputably bring to the table was money. Gobs of it. When Kemp appointed her to the seat, she immediately became the Senate’s wealthiest member. Loeffler initially said she would put as much as $20 million of her own funds into her reelection contest. It turned out that wasn’t enough; as of mid-October, Loeffler had lent her campaign $23 million. Her husband, New York Stock Exchange chairman Jeffrey Sprecher, dumped another $5.5 million into a super PAC devoted solely to her reelection.
But their personal fortune, seen as an obvious political asset when Loeffler was appointed to the seat, also became a major liability. In March, The Daily Beast reported that she and Sprecher had sold off millions of dollars in stock in the wake of a closed-door Senate briefing on the coronavirus. The FBI and Senate ethics officials both investigated but did not determine that she had violated laws barring federal officeholders from trading on non-public information.
The scandal nonetheless dogged Loeffler’s campaign, as both Collins and Warnock accused her of profiteering off of the pandemic and resulting economic turmoil. A pro-Collins outside group, Georgia’s Not For Sale, sustained the line of attack throughout the campaign.
The Collins-Loeffler blood feud has put their mutual lodestar, Trump, in a tough position. The president has dutifully backed up the new senator who has hugged him tightly and suggested he should win multiple Nobel Peace Prizes. But Trump also has a longstanding affinity for Collins, his chief defender during the House impeachment inquiry.
It’s unclear which candidate has an edge among the hardcore GOP base, but if the Monmouth poll released on Wednesday is any indication, it could be Loeffler. Asked which candidate is “more supportive” of the president, respondents said Loeffler, by a nearly three-to-one margin.
But many believe that there are quiet Collins supporters who don’t want to publicly broadcast their support for him so as not to run afoul of Kemp and the GOP establishment. “Reticence about getting on the other side of the governor has frozen a lot of fundraising for Collins,” the anonymous Georgia Republican told The Daily Beast.
During a Trump rally in Macon, Georgia, two weeks ago, both Collins and Loeffler were present. The president praised them both publicly from the stage—and the reaction was telling, for close observers of the race: Loeffler got enthusiastic applause from the crowd when Trump mentioned her, but Collins got an unmistakable roar from the crowd. Shepherd, the Cobb County GOP chair, said he turned to a friend after hearing the responses. “I said, ‘uh oh,’” he told The Daily Beast.
“Boy, am I in a lousy position,” sighed an exasperated Trump at the rally. “I love 'em both.” But he suggested there could be at least one person who comes out ahead in this nasty feud.
“You know who the biggest winner is gonna be? Trump,” he said. “Everybody who votes for both is gonna vote for me.”