WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump so far hasn't been able to head off a drawn-out Republican brawl for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia that pits two candidates he's praised against each other and triggered jitters within the party about potentially losing the seat in November.
The conflict's been brewing since Georgia's GOP Gov. Brian Kemp chose businesswoman Kelly Loeffler in December to temporarily fill an open Senate seat, despite lobbying from the president to pick four-term GOP Rep. Doug Collins, who's now waging a primary fight.
Collins last week rejected Trump's attempt to lure him away from challenging Loeffler by floating the idea of making him a candidate to become the next U.S. spy chief. Hours after Trump made the surprise announcement, Collins said no. "I'm running a Senate race down here in Georgia," he said.
Collins has been an ardent Trump backer since the 2016 primaries and as the top Judiciary Committee Republican was prominently one of the president's most vocal defenders during the House impeachment inquiry. Though Loeffler is new in the Capitol, she quickly picked up a Twitter habit that she's used to praise Trump and bash his critics.
The concern for Republicans is that a bitter fight between Republican candidates provides an opening for Democrats. The Georgia race is crucial to the GOP's bid to keep the Senate majority it has held since 2015. Republicans will be defending 23 seats in November, compared with 12 for Democrats. A net pickup of four seats by Democrats would guarantee them the majority.
The Georgia contest isn't a typical Republican primary that chooses a nominee to run against a Democrat. Instead, multiple candidates from both parties will compete in a wide-open "jungle primary" on Nov. 3. It's to fill the last two years of the term of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons.
If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will be set for Jan. 5. While Republicans hold a statewide edge in voting, some in the party worry a Loeffler-Collins battle could divide GOP voters and make it easier for a Democrat to win.
Republicans have quickly taken sides.
Collins, who has represented northeastern Georgia in the House since 2013, is a well-known fixture on Fox News and other conservative outlets. He's backed by high-profile conservatives including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the state's 2008 presidential primary, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, Fox News host Sean Hannity, and conservative radio host Mark Levin. Collins has been invited to speak this week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference run by Schlapp outside Washington. Loeffler isn't on the lineup.
Collins and his allies have launched broadsides against Loeffler as politically untested and anything but a Trump Republican, flagging her past support for Utah's GOP Sen. Mitt Romney. They've even questioned her depiction as a hunter in a posed ad with a shotgun over one shoulder, mocking her expensive outfit and saying she doesn't have a Georgia hunting license.