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GOP Conflict Brews For Months Over Georgia's Special Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

Georgia has two Senate seats up for election in November. One is a special election that was triggered by the early retirement of former Senator Johnny Isakson. That Senate contest has turned into a bitter Republican fight which could jeopardize the party's hold on the seat. Here's Emma Hurt from WABE in Atlanta.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: At the Georgia State Capitol, Governor Brian Kemp recently held a press conference alongside Kelly Loeffler. She's the wealthy business executive he just appointed to fill the Senate vacancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRIAN KEMP: It's my honor to introduce our senator, Kelly Loeffler - Kelly.

(APPLAUSE)

HURT: It was a pretty standard scene celebrating that Loeffler qualified to be on the ballot in November to face voters for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KELLY LOEFFLER: Thank you so much. Thank you. It's great to be here today. I was really humbled to be appointed. I'm so honored to serve Georgia.

HURT: But Republican Congressman Doug Collins wanted that seat and has decided to run for it in November against Loeffler. Collins gained a national platform as a fierce defender of President Trump during the impeachment inquiry, and he thinks he's the better candidate.

DOUG COLLINS: At this point in time, there's one person voted for Senator Loeffler, and that was Governor Kemp. Now it's time for the rest of Georgia to have that same vote.

HURT: Ordinarily, this would be normal. But there won't be a Republican primary in this race. The vacant Senate seat triggered a, quote, "jungle primary," which means it's a free-for-all in November - Democrats and Republicans all on one ballot. And that's why Collins' decision is especially controversial. The worry is he could split the Republican ticket and give Democrats a leg up, an argument he doesn't buy.

COLLINS: This idea that somehow I'm encouraging Democrat response is maybe they also - the Democrats know that I'm the one that can win.

HURT: This conflict has been bubbling for months. Trump and other conservative pundits and politicians lobbied Georgia's governor to appoint Collins instead of Loeffler last fall.

HEATH GARRETT: We really are in unprecedented territory, and some describe it a little bit as political chaos here.

HURT: Heath Garrett is a Republican strategist who's worked for both candidates in the past but is staying neutral this time.

GARRETT: Both sides have kind of gone into their corners and gone into their trenches and are basically yelling at each other right now. In Loeffler's trench is the National Republican Senatorial Committee backed by Senator Mitch McConnell.

HURT: Here's one of their recent ads about Collins' decision to run.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

SAMI GILKES: It's hard to imagine anyone could ever be so selfish and entitled that they would put so much at risk just to advance their own ambitions. Am I right?

HURT: Other ads refer to the four-term congressman as D.C. Doug Collins. Both sides accuse the other of being the more establishment candidate. Loeffler is tying her campaign closely to the president's.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LOEFFLER: And so as an outsider just like President Trump was, just like Senator David Perdue, I'm coming to solve problems and to protect our freedom.

HURT: Collins counters that she's not an outsider and not a longtime Trump ally given her past political donations.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Kelly Loeffler gave nearly $1 million to Mitt Romney - the same Mitt Romney that voted to impeach our president. Kelly Loeffler - too swampy for Georgia.

HURT: President Trump has not picked a side, but a possible endorsement hangs heavy over both candidates. Heath Garrett again.

GARRETT: Whether or not Donald Trump weighs in on this race really is the multimillion-dollar question.

HURT: No matter what, this is already turning into an extremely expensive contest. Loeffler has pledged to spend 20 million of her own money, and Garrett says all of it has already drawn more national interest and dollars for Democrats because, yes, there will be several of them on the ballot, too.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.