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Loeffler works to gain traction with conservatives amid Collins primary bid

The Hill logo The Hill 2/3/2020 Juliegrace Brufke
a woman wearing a suit and tie: Loeffler works to gain traction with conservatives amid Collins primary bid © Greg Nash Loeffler works to gain traction with conservatives amid Collins primary bid

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) is taking steps to earn support from the conservative flank of the Republican Party as she faces what is expected to be a heated primary battle for her Senate seat against Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).

Loeffler, a wealthy financial executive whom Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) after he stepped down at the end of last year due to a series of health issues, has previously faced accusations from conservative groups of being too moderate.

But conservatives appear to be warming to the Georgia Republican who has made an effort to meet with with several conservative groups and their leaders including Club for Growth, Penny Nance from Concerned Women for America, Carolyn Meadows of the NRA, Tony Perkins of Family Research Council and Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List. She is also slated to meet with leaders from the National Right to Life and Americans for Prosperity.

The senator, who has been closely linked to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), came under fire from some conservative groups for her position on the board of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, a medical center that performs abortions. But as Loeffler continues her meetings, the new senator's work has appeared to pay off. Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, praised her on social media despite the group's initial resistance.

"Congratulations @kloeffler on being sworn in to the U.S. Senate today! In our conversations your heart for unborn children & commitment to the #prolife cause is clear. We look forward to working with you to advance pro-life laws and confirm President Trump's judicial nominees," she tweeted.

The Georgia senator has also recently hired a sizable number of conservatives to her team: two staffers from the office of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, two staffers from Rep. Dan Crenshaw's (R-Texas) office and a staffer from House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jody Hice's (R-Ga.) office - a move that can help her gain clout with key conservative groups that could bolster her position in the upcoming race.

"I think that it's setting Kelly up nicely because it shows conservatives that they can really trust her as an ally," one GOP Senate strategist told The Hill, noting the staff has previous working relationships with conservative media organizations and outside groups like the Heritage Foundation.

The group Club for Growth's President David McIntosh said Loeffler's staffing decisions are an encouraging sign. And while the group hasn't officially endorsed her in the Senate race, it has announced its plans to run $3 million in television ads against Collins which are set to start airing in the coming days.

"We sat down with her in kind of an introductory meeting, and I was impressed by her intelligence and her business experience from all the previous careers. But as she said, she just got here and is just learning the Senate and how to go about that," McIntosh told The Hill in an interview on Friday.

"So having really good staff behind her will, I think, be an enormous assistance. And one of the things that we've noticed is senators that have conservatives working for them on their staff get more of the information that they need to make votes on critical issues."

The Georgia Life Alliance also launched a radio ad supporting Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) last week.

"Senator Loeffler is proud to have the support of so many conservatives across Georgia and across the country," Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson said in a statement.

"They recognize that she is a political outsider committed to supporting President Trump and protecting our conservative values, and she looks forward to delivering results for the people of the Peach State."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, and the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC have already vowed to back her in the primary. She has also received endorsements from conservative colleagues in the upper chamber including Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

Loeffler's efforts to align herself with conservatives could prove to be problematic for Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who has played a leading role in defending President Trump throughout the impeachment proceedings.

While top conservative lawmakers in Congress and the president showed support for Collins ahead of Loeffler's appointment, House lawmakers have been hesitant to get involved in the future primary battle.

"Well, Doug and I have been friends for many years, we served in the Georgia House together and of course have served up here in Washington together. He is a fine fellow, and does an outstanding job as Judiciary chairman," Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) said Thursday.

"Sen. Loeffler has done an outstanding job, I've been super impressed with the work that she has done and this is a very difficult situation for us to be in, but it is what it is so we have to deal with it. At this point I'm, I'm going to continue to work with Doug here in the House, I'm going to continue to work with Sen. Loeffler as the voters send us up here to do," he continued.

Loeffler has also been working to prove her pro-Trump credentials, taking aim at Romney just for his support of bringing in additional witnesses to testify as part of the impeachment trial just ahead of Collins' announcement.

Sources close to the president said it's unlikely Trump will get involved in the primary despite his close working relationship with Collins.

"I don't think he does," said one GOP member when asked if Trump will endorse at all.

However, multiple sources close to Loeffler cited the president's shoutout to her during the signing of the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada last week as an encouraging sign.

"Kelly Loeffler, congratulations Kelly, they already like you a lot. That's what the word is," Trump said at the gathering at the White House.

"I think it's very clear to anyone that she's putting in the hard work. That she is the conservative businesswoman that Kemp said she is," a GOP Senate strategist said. "I think people are seeing that more and more and realize the threat that splitting votes would do."

But despite the political gains that Loeffler has made with the far-right, Collins still presents a formidable threat to her reelection bid.

Collins has the backing of a number of high-profile conservatives including numerous state legislators; Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative radio host Mark Levin.

The Collins' camp is looking to go after Loeffler for previously donating to Romney's campaign, alleging that Georgia voters don't see her as a true Trump Republican.

"It's worth mentioning how much ground she has to make up for. Georgia sees her as a Romney Republican. Her tweet on Monday, attacking Romney, came after rumors that Doug was announcing," one source close to Collins said. "She didn't donate to Trump until after she and Kemp had met/spoken several times, the vetting process had already begun (the same day Doug flew down to Atlanta with POTUS on AF1 for Trump fundraiser)."

Loeffler supporters have slammed the accusations she isn't committed to the president's agenda, arguing it's unfair to blast her for supporting Romney in 2012 because she felt he was the better of the two candidates. They added that Collins has supported moderate GOP candidates in their races in the past as well.

"Collins was a big supporter of Scott Walker and in 2016, he was Walker's state chair," one senior GOP aide said. "That's way more recent and much more relevant."

Loeffler and Collins are expected to face off in a jungle primary on Nov. 3 with a runoff likely to take place on Jan. 5, 2021.

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