In U.S. Senate Race, Georgia Republicans Are Divided. Can They Reunite In A Presumed Runoff?

In the special election for the Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, most Georgia Republicans are making a choice between the incumbent, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and her main GOP challenger, Northeast Georgia Congressman Doug Collins. Both have touted their pro-Donald Trump, anti-abortion and pro-gun rights stances.

And almost all recent polling has Collins and Loeffler within striking distance of each other, indicating a split basically down the middle among the Republican electorate.

The choice has been difficult for some voters, because the candidates have fought a bruising intraparty battle for months, and that battle throws into question how effectively one candidate may be able to reunite Republicans in a presumed January runoff.

Catherine Davis, an anti-abortion activist from Stone Mountain, declined to discuss whom she’s supporting but said she’s not happy about the campaigns’ tones.

“We can’t afford right now to be divided. And very vitriolic things are being said. Will we recover from that? I don’t want to contribute to that,” she said.

“I think it is dividing Republicans because you have the candidate that the governor chose and then you have the president not taking sides with either candidate,” she said. “So that makes it difficult. And you really are going to have to assess for yourself what that means in the race.”

The rift within the party that’s “being fueled by great bitterness on both sides” isn’t ideal for Republicans, said Charles Bullock, political scientist at the University of Georgia.

“For a party which has reached its peaked in terms of popular support in Georgia—it may still well be the dominant party, but it’s going into a bit of decline—this is not a good time for it to happen,” he said.

Polling shows the presidential race as a toss-up in the state.

“The potential for deeper wounds is something that could be devastating to whichever of those two emerges as the candidate to go against Rev. [Raphael] Warnock,” he said.

(With 21 names on the ballot, it’s highly unlikely any candidate will receive the requisite 50% plus one vote to win outright, which would push the top two to a Jan. 5 runoff.)

Loeffler has outspent Collins nearly 5 to 1, much of it on ads labeling Collins as a career politician who hasn’t stood up for conservative principles.

“It’s vitally important that Georgians know that I have a strong conservative record, and I’m running against someone with a failed record,” Loeffler said, conceding that she does think Republicans will unite around an ultimate victor.

For his part, Collins has accused Loeffler of lying about his record and has questioned her conservatism.

But he compares the race to a traditional intraparty primary fight. “There was a huge partisan fight for governor two years ago with Brian Kemp, Casey Cagle, Hunter Hill … but really at the end of the day politics comes back together,” he said.

“People who vote for conservatives like me are not going to vote for Raphael Warnock,” he said. “So Republicans are going to come around for the one they want to vote for and Democrats are going to come around to the one they want to vote for.”

Bullock said with just two months to make the standard pivot candidates make from a primary fight to a general election, things could be more challenging than normal.

“It may be very difficult given the kinds of things they say to each other and the accusations they make to convince supporters of the losing candidate to rally to the winning candidate’s side,” he said.

Bob Camp, a strong Loeffler supporter from Douglasville, is proof of Collins’s argument. If Collins were to beat out Loeffler, he said, “I would hold my nose and vote for Collins against a Democrat.”

“Republicans have in the past shown they can put those kinds of things behind them for the greater good,” he said.

David Ralston, Republican Speaker of the House and a Collins supporter, is not worried about the party’s unity either.

“It’s harder to hold a majority than it is to form a minority,” he said. “When you have a big tent, and we have a big tent, it’s hard to keep the flaps down on all sides all the time.”