What is in Georgia besides the Coca-Cola headquarters, peaches and the state opossum, Pogo? Well, both the soul of the Republican Party and its greatest danger — former Democratic Rep. Stacey Abrams — reside in the state. While I would love to write about the massive threat that Abrams poses to Republicans, there’s frankly not enough space in this article to accurately portray her brilliance, so let’s take a look at the soul of the Republican Party and by that, I do not mean the former steak salesman in the White House. In fact, I do not believe that the soul of the party lies with any one person right now, but I believe that two Republican Senate candidates — Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and United States Rep. Doug Collins — are vying to be its figurehead.

This old-fashioned far-right versus center-right battle began Aug. 28, 2019, when Georgia’s senior senator, Johnny Isakson, announced that midway through his third term he would retire due to health concerns. Immediately, all eyes went to Atlanta where Gov. Brian Kemp was given a gift and a curse: Appointing Isakson’s replacement. Kemp, ever the strategist, held an open application process where any Georgia citizen could submit a resume and cover letter. Though this publicity stunt bought Kemp some time, the political universe quickly narrowed the selection pool to Collins, Loeffler and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. However, with Price’s public resignation putting him in a precarious legal position, Kemp’s table was set.

If former President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could breed a senator in a lab, Kelly Loeffler would be the product. Born to soybean farmers in rural Illinois, Loeffler worked her way up the corporate ladder of a commodities trader, Intercontinental Exchange, and eventually became the CEO of Bakkt, an IE subsidiary, in 2018. Throughout her business career, Loeffler was an avid Republican donor and activist, having donated more than $3.2 million with her husband. The power couple’s pet causes included former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. While her money brought her into the party’s upper echelons, she has always wanted to hold elected office. And after seeing David Perdue win an open Senate seat in 2014 that she passed up, Loeffler did not want to miss her chance to become a part of Congress’s clubby upper chamber in 2020. 

While Loeffler seems born for this job, Collins couldn’t be less poised to work with McConnell. From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, Collins earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Georgia and a master’s in divinity from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Following his education, he was the pastor at Chicopee Baptist Church for 11 years. Capitalizing on his church’s success, Collins entered the political sphere through the Georgia House of Representatives, ultimately moving to the U.S. House where he currently serves as the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee. From this perch, the Congressman has spent the last two years making his southern drawl and fast-talking a staple on cable news by arguing with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and making irregardless trend on Twitter.

For Kemp, this decision was obvious: Loeffler. The former Bakkt CEO and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team had plenty of financial backing for her 2020 run, and, more importantly, she shared Kemp’s traditional Chamber of Commerce republicanism. Conversely, the far-right Collins had no qualms about appearing on Fox News or berating former Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice Robert Mueller, which earned Collins a strong ally: the President. Collins’s position on the front lines of Trump’s defense put him in the President’s good graces. Therefore, Trump extensively lobbied Kemp behind the scenes for Collins. Kemp’s tiebreaker was McConnell, who gave him a gut check and reminded Kemp that Republicans could still win the Senate in 2020 even if Trump lost. Therefore, Loeffler needed to be appointed. And on Dec. 4, she was.

When she got into office, Loeffler had one priority: get Trump’s endorsement. From allying with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during the impeachment saga to baselessly attacking Romney, she has proven she will go to great lengths to receive it. She was on track to receive this golden ticket to victory, but on Jan. 29, her life got significantly harder as Collins announced that he would challenge her in the special election for Isakson’s old seat. This decision was met with a swift rebuke from the chairman of the NRSC Kevin McLaughlin, who said “All (Collins) has done is put two Senate seats, multiple House seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play.”

Additional groups like the Senate Leadership Fund and several sitting Republican senators have issued similar warnings, but, importantly, there is one person who has been conspicuously quiet on the issue: President Donald Trump. With great power traditionally comes great responsibility, but the former reality TV star has been like a bull in a china shop — or horse in a hospital — over the last three years. Thus, Trump is the wild card in this primary who could drastically swing the race one way or the other. However, learning from his 2017 primary endorsement of Luther Strange over the ultimate victor Roy Moore in Alabama, Trump has typically refrained from supporting candidates in competitive primaries. Therefore, Loeffler and Collins will likely have to slug it out until Nov. 3.

While the winner of the special election remains unknown, the winner of the Republican infighting is one person: Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock is a Baptist preacher from Atlanta who has been sharply critical of Trump and announced his candidacy for the 2020 special election amid a flurry of prominent Democratic endorsements, including Abrams and Democratic Rep. John Lewis. Warnock’s deep ties with Black voters will energize this key voting bloc in 2020, which poses a greater threat to the Republicans than either Collins or Loeffler; and, because of Georgia’s Jungle Primary election rules, these three will share a ballot in November. If none of them reach 50 percent, then there will be a runoff between the top two, but the two Republicans are in a precarious position because they must fight on multiple fronts while Warnock can address them as a unit and possibly squeeze out 50 percent.

The bottom line is if Republicans want to keep this key seat from Warnock and the Democrats, they have to convince Trump to endorse someone. If he doesn’t, we will see a fight for the soul of the Republican Party play out, and we might see the end of the party’s 15-year Georgia dynasty.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu.

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