ATLANTA, Ga. – Less than a month after being sworn in as Georgia's new U.S. senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler faces a 2020 election battle that's already shaping up to be so contentious that odds are it won't be over until 2021.
Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman and political newcomer, is running her first campaign to fill the remaining two years of a Senate vacancy after the governor appointed her in December. Georgia law requires a free-for-all special election where all contenders face off Nov. 3, allowing multiple Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot.
And in the past week, Loeffler picked up potent challengers on either side of the political spectrum, underscoring the necessity — and the risks — of courting loyal Trump voters as Loeffler tries to keep her seat in a state where the GOP still dominates but Democrats have gained ground among suburban women and an increasingly diverse electorate.
To her right there's U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a fellow Republican who's well-known to viewers of Fox News Channel as an ardent defender of President Donald Trump. On her left is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the activist pastor of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached whose campaign was quickly endorsed by one of Georgia's most popular Democrats, Stacey Abrams, as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Two other contenders, both Democrats, are also running for the seat that opened when GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson retired in December. And more could still join. No deadline for signing up has been set, though Georgia's secretary of state is eyeing the first week of March.
“There will be other people getting in the race, Republicans and Democrats,” predicted Democrat Michael Thurmond, the elected CEO of metro Atlanta's DeKalb County, who said he hasn't ruled out joining the Loeffler race. “This thing is extremely fluid and that's not going to stop."
Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman who sought the governor's appointment, said he won't run for the Senate and questioned whether others still have much time to decide.
“You’ve got a short sprint between now and November in a really big state,” Kingston said. "You just need to be out there working already.”
One thing that increasingly seems like a safe bet: a field crowded with enough candidates to divide Democratic and Republican voters alike probably won't end with anybody winning with more the 50% of the vote on Nov. 3.
If that's the case, the winner won't be determined until nearly a year from now — in a runoff election on Jan. 5, 2021.
It's a key race at a pivotal time in Georgia, where Republicans still dominate but Democrats have made significant strides in recent elections. Loeffler's race will share the November ballot with those of Trump and fellow GOP Sen. David Perdue. Democrats insist they have a shot in Georgia at all three.
Though she's never run before and remains virtually unknown to many Georgia voters, Loeffler won't be a pushover. She's pledged to spend $20 million of her own money on the race. Gov. Brian Kemp is actively promoting his appointee to conservative groups, and key staff from the governor's 2018 campaign have joined Loeffler's team.
She wouldn't be the first political novice to be elected to the Senate from Georgia. Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, ran his debut race in 2014 as a political outsider and bested three GOP congressmen in the primaries, then went on to defeat Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn.
Collins had openly lobbied the governor to appoint him to the Senate seat, with support from Trump. By choosing Loeffler, Kemp outraged Trump loyalists who felt he had defied the president.
Collins' decision to challenge Loeffler has forced her to lean to the right. She's frequently taken to Twitter to defend Trump, criticize his impeachment and even attack one fellow Republican, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for being open to calling witnesses at Trump's Senate trial.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee's executive director, Kevin McLaughlin, accused Collins of being driven by “selfishness” and said his candidacy puts Loeffler and other Republicans on Georgia's statewide ballot at risk. Collins dismissed the criticism as unfounded.
Despite having opponents from both parties, Loeffler's smartest bet is to focus on beating Collins among Republican voters in November and then advance to a runoff, where Georgia Democrats historically have struggled to match the GOP in getting voters back to the polls, said Brian Robinson, a Republican political adviser who served as communications director for former Gov. Nathan Deal.
“The only way for Kelly or Doug to get there is to win a majority of Republicans, not independents” in the November race, Robinson said. “And in Georgia, that is an extraordinarily conservative, pro-Trump voter.”
On the other side, many Democrats believe their best shot is to win outright in November and avoid coming back for a runoff.
Democratic Party leaders had hoped to unite their voters behind a single candidate to maximize their chances of winning on Nov. 3. As pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he's followed King's example of promoting political activism from the pulpit, Warnock brings a touch of celebrity to the campaign.
But there are also two other Democratic candidates — Matt Lieberman, the son of former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and Ed Tarver, who served as U.S. attorney for Georgia's Southern District under the Obama administration.
“I know that the more people that get in the race, resources are split and our party has the potential to be split," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic Party. Still, she insisted Georgia Democrats are “keeping our eyes on the prize.”
Warnock scored big wins in the first days of his campaign with endorsements from Abrams on Thursday and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Friday.
The DSCC endorsement essentially declares Warnock the favored candidate of national Democrats. Abrams' support also carries great weight in Georgia, where she's among the state's most popular Democrats. Still, the early support for Warnock hasn't caused either of his fellow Democratic contenders to back down.
“Many in the Democratic Party are proud of what Stacey accomplished in her unsuccessful run for governor,” Tarver said in an interview, adding he plans to officially kick off his campaign in February. “But I don’t think that by any means has anointed her as the spokesperson of the party or of all Georgians.”
Lieberman, a metro Atlanta educator, was the first Democrat to announce for the Senate race back in October. He said high-profile opponents like Warnock and Collins won’t affect his campaign.
“Who I am doesn’t change based on who else is in the race,” Lieberman said.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.