GOP establishment prepares to battle Doug Collins

“It’s so selfish of Doug Collins to be promoting himself when President Trump needs a unified team and Senator Loeffler is such a warrior for the President,” said Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “As we’ve said before, Senator Loeffler is an outsider like Trump, not just another D.C. politician. We’ll have her back if she needs us.”

The Senate GOP’s campaign arm — which protects incumbents — is also backing Loeffler.

With the Collins threat looming, Loeffler has worked to shore up her conservative bona fides and show her loyalty to Trump during her first few weeks in the Senate. She signed on to anti-abortion legislation, railed against Democrats’ impeachment case against Trump and took a shot at Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an occasional Trump critic.

Now, as Loeffler faces a potentially stiff challenge for her seat, some of her colleagues and their closest allies are throwing their weight behind her. And she’s working to win over even more supporters: Loeffler met with Ivanka Trump on Tuesday, has been on calls with the president and has also spoken with his son, Donald Trump Jr., Loeffler’s office confirmed.

Collins’ office declined to comment, while Loeffler on Tuesday rebuffed questions from reporters in the Capitol about the expected challenge.

The election is an all-party contest in November, with the top two challengers facing off in a January runoff if no candidate tops 50 percent of the vote. A panel of state lawmakers supported legislation to change the race to include a party primary, but Gov. Brian Kemp has threatened to veto the legislation.

Loeffler and Collins would be on the ballot together along with any Democrats who are running. Matt Lieberman is the only Democrat currently in the race, but others are likely to join. Rev. Raphael Warnock is expected to announce a bid soon, and former U.S attorney Ed Tarver has also said he plans to run.

Sen. Todd Young, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters Tuesday he was “not concerned” about the looming battle.

“It’s certainly something we’re watching closely. And as you might expect, we’ll be supportive of Kelly Loeffler,” Young said. “She’s proven herself to be a strong conservative who will represent the state of Georgia. And we’re fully committed to her success.”

“We’ll hold the seat,” he added, when pressed on whether a fractured GOP could hurt their chances.

But Collins could have a powerful set of allies in his corner. As the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, he has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the impeachment battle. The president and his allies even lobbied Kemp to appoint Collins to the Senate seat late last year, though it’s unclear whether Trump would get involved in the Georgia battle.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who was elected to the chamber after three terms in the House, praised Collins without taking sides in the race.

“I know Doug really well and I love him like a brother,” Cramer said. He added that he had some concern about using up resources on an intra-party fight, but that they should trust the voters. He said he didn’t know Loeffler well but she has “made a good impression” so far.

“It’s no secret Doug Collins isn’t exactly anonymous, either,” Cramer said. “It would be a heck of a fight.”

Some Senate Republicans have already started picking sides. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who was elected in 2018 after serving eight terms in the House, said it’s important for the party to boost women in the chamber.

“Conservative women are kind of at the bottom of the pecking order here, so I’m going to support Kelly and hope to see her very successful,” Blackburn told POLITICO. She’s sent multiple tweets boosting Loeffler since news of Collins’ run broke. “She’s the senator and she’s doing a great job and I love it when we have strong women who step up.”

Loeffler became the 26th woman senator and the 9th Republican woman in the chamber when she was sworn in, both all-time highs. But at least three other Republican women are at risk of losing their Senate seats this cycle, with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Martha McSally of Arizona and Joni Ernst of Iowa all running in battleground races.

Loeffler, a wealthy financial executive, has massive personal resources to spend on her campaign — she has pledged to pour $20 million into the race, an amount that could grow significantly if necessary. She’s already run several millions of dollars on TV boosting her image, with commercials both detailing her own background and tying herself to Trump.

And she’ll also have the backing of Senate GOP leadership, with SLF signaling that they could be there to help Loeffler if necessary.

Some on the right are also signaling opposition to Collins.

The conservative Club for Growth chided him in a tweet for having a low scorecard with the group shortly after news of his Senate run was reported Monday. David McIntosh, the group’s president and a former congressman from Indiana, said Collins has “no business” in the race. He fretted about a scenario where the seat could jeopardize control of the Senate.

“It could be a terrible mess just because he decided he’s more important than the party,” McIntosh said.

Still, McIntosh didn’t signal whether the Club would get involved. He praised Loeffler’s record so far in her first weeks but said more due diligence was required before deciding whether to enter the fray.

Before Loeffler was appointed, a handful of right-of-center groups came out against Loeffler, expressing concern that she lacked conservative credentials. And during a meeting at the White House late last year, Trump noted that Loeffler was not an original backer of his 2016 campaign and raised concerns that she had never held elected office before.

Collins is likely to have significant support in his Senate run, including from some of his House colleagues — several of whom are close allies of the president. He also has significant backing in Georgia, including from Republican lawmakers in the state. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that State House Speaker David Ralston signaled his support for Collins when the congressman was in the state Tuesday.

“He is my friend. He has stood by me when few would,” Ralston said, according to the newspaper. “And I don’t forget things like that.”

Alex Isenstadt and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.