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Georgia's race to the right prompts GOP fears over holding Senate majority

She's cut an ad saying she's "more conservative than Attila the Hun." She's lashed out at the WNBA for its ties to Black Lives Matter. And she frequently promotes herself as having a "100 percent Trump voting record."

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Manu Raju
Alex Rogers, CNN
CNN — She's cut an ad saying she's "more conservative than Attila the Hun." She's lashed out at the WNBA for its ties to Black Lives Matter. And she frequently promotes herself as having a "100 percent Trump voting record."

And this week, Sen. Kelly Loeffler took her move to the right to a new level: Touting the endorsement of a controversial House candidate from Georgia who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy and had been denounced by other Republicans before winning the GOP nomination in her race for making bigoted and racist comments.

"No one in Georgia cares about the QAnon business," Loeffler told reporters defiantly, after pulling up to the event in a Humvee and sporting a baseball cap, with congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene by her side. "This is something the fake news is gonna continue to bring up -- and ignore Antifa."

Loeffler, an appointed senator and one of the richest in Congress, has been in a race to the right with GOP Rep. Doug Collins, an intraparty battle that has prompted deep Republican concerns that it could splinter the vote and help Democrats sweep Georgia and take the Senate majority.

It's a scenario that GOP leaders have been privately fearing for months -- and one they had sought to avoid at the beginning of the year. In private, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had counseled his top lieutenants and even President Donald Trump to ensure the party would unite behind one candidate and avoid a messy internecine battle that could imperil the crucial Senate seat, multiple GOP sources told CNN.

Interactive: 2020 Senate race ratings

But Collins, who lobbied for the Senate appointment that Gov. Brian Kemp gave to Loeffler, entered the race earlier this year over the furious opposition of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As Trump has remained silent about his preference in the race, the two candidates have sought to one-up the other and showcase their loyalty to the President, moving further and further to the right in a state where Atlanta's more moderate suburban voters will be the linchpin.

The race presents challenges unlike any other in the country. Since it's a special election, there is no primary. So to win the November election outright, a candidate must surpass 50% of the vote; if not, the top two candidates face off in a January runoff. Since it's unlikely that any candidate will reach the 50 percent threshold, both Collins and Loeffler have been competing intensely to make the runoff by wooing Republican voters and appealing to the conservative base, which represents a slice of the state's 6.9 million registered voters.

That has created an opening for the leading Democratic candidate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has been mostly unscathed amid the daily slugfest between Collins and Loeffler, and was rewarded with a Friday fundraiser led by former President Barack Obama.

What's also concerning Republicans: The other Georgia Senate seat, currently occupied by GOP Sen. David Perdue, who is now in a deadheat against Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who announced he'd raised $21.3 million in the past quarter, the largest quarterly haul for any Senate candidate in the state's history.

Republicans privately fret that the bitter Collins-Loeffler fight is dividing the party during the campaign's most critical juncture and now threatening both Senate seats, a scenario some senior Republicans warned could happen months ago when Collins entered the race.

Warnock's standing has improved in recent weeks. In late September, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Warnock with 31%, Loeffler at 23%, and Collins at 22% among likely voters. In October, another Quinnipiac poll showed Warnock at 41%, Collins at 22% and Loeffler at 20%.

All of which has some top Republicans frustrated with Collins and accusing him of putting his own personal ambitions ahead of the goal of preserving the Senate majority.

"In a difficult election cycle like this one, you really need candidates to avoid making selfish decisions that further complicate your party's ability to win," said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff who still advises the GOP leader. "Clearly that didn't happen in Georgia."

How the two GOP candidates are courting the right

Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator in 20 years. But Democrats are optimistic that they will compete in the state, spurred by the Republicans' race to the right, the growth of the Atlanta suburbs and the voter expansion efforts led by former state House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams.

Late last year, Kemp appointed Loeffler to serve the rest of Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson's term following his resignation. Part of the draw of Loeffler, who is married to New York Stock Exchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, was that she could appeal to the rapidly diversifying suburbs -- especially suburban women -- and could self-fundraise. (The couple has spent at least $25 million of their own money in the race so far.)

But not long after Loeffler's appointment, Republican state legislators attempted to pass a bill creating a primary, so that Loeffler would have to face Collins and the winner of the primary would go head-to-head against the Democratic nominee in a general election.

The governor threatened to veto the bill, and it went nowhere.

But now, the Republican candidates are spending the last days of the Senate race as if they were running in a primary, trying to appeal to the hardcore members of their party -- like Greene.

At the Thursday event, a reporter asked Loeffler if she accepted the endorsement of someone who had spread "the baseless QAnon theories" and "made incendiary, xenophobic, controversial remarks" before asking whether she was worried that Greene is damaging the party's brand in the state.

"Look, I don't know anything about QAnon," responded Loeffler. "I know how the media twists people's words, they do it over and over, they even make up things."

Greene, who has recently distanced herself from QAnon but has not disavowed the fringe theory she once promoted, then asked: "Have you retracted any of your fake news articles about Russian collusion conspiracy theories attacking President Trump? Have you written any articles lately about Hunter Biden and the scandal that's happening attached to Joe Biden?"

A Georgia Republican strategist, who is not affiliated with either campaign, said that Loeffler's endorsement event with Greene was "nothing short of a Hail Mary."

"I think it's devastating to her in a runoff," said the GOP strategist, who asked for anonymity to assess the race candidly. "The day after Election Day on our side, if Kelly Loeffler were to somehow pull this out, there'll be an ad within five minutes tying her to QAnon. And it's not going to be good."

When asked if he was concerned that Loeffler's pitch to conservative voters would turn off independents, and potentially hurt the senator in a runoff race, Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson told CNN that the GOP senator would be able to paint Warnock as outside of the mainstream.

"Raphael Warnock is the most radically liberal and extreme candidate running for Senate anywhere in the country--so we're extremely excited about the opportunity to face him in the January runoff," Lawson said.

On Capitol Hill, Loeffler has maintained a low profile and rarely speaks to reporters, flanked by an aide and often walking by in silence when asked a question. And in the extremely rare event that she does answer a reporter's query, she speaks Trump's language.

"Fake news," she said to CNN when asked last month about Trump's recorded comments to journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally played down the coronavirus.

In Georgia, though, her moves have made waves.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Loeffler, the co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, was engaged this summer in a fight with the league and her own players, writing in July to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert that she "adamantly" opposed the Black Lives Matter political movement, which she called "totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion."

The players responded in-kind, wearing black shirts that said: "Vote Warnock."

Loeffler perhaps wouldn't have had to wage battles in the culture wars if Collins didn't decide to run for Senate.

The Georgia congressman was the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and led Trump's defense during the President's impeachment proceedings last year -- something he's touted repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Collins announced on Thursday a "Trump Defender Statewide Tour," with some of the President's staunchest allies, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona and former Trump advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, who were players in former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Collins campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said Collins would drive his "family suburban, trailed by volunteers in a 15-passenger van that runs on liberal tears."

McLagan said that Greene was "a nice endorsement for Kelly," but said the senator "looked about as comfortable at that press conference as a deer at a hunters convention."

"Georgians know that Doug is the real conservative and Kelly is a phony," he said.

The courtship of the right has Democrats optimistic about the race.

Warnock, the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who raised nearly $13 million in the last quarter, has already attacked the senator over accepting Greene's endorsement.

"Instead of trafficking in division and proudly standing alongside those that spout dangerous rhetoric like Marjorie Taylor Greene, we're focused on being a voice for all Georgians," Warnock said.

While Warnock is the heavy favorite to make it to a runoff, some Democrats fear that Matt Lieberman, a Democratic candidate and son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has polled in the single digits, will siphon away enough support to prevent Warnock from winning in November outright.

Either way, Democratic leaders believe the GOP vs. GOP battling, coupled with former Vice President Joe Biden's aggressive play in the state, will bolster their candidates down-ticket.

"If Joe Biden carries Georgia, which would be a headline event in American politics, then those who are on the other side of that equation are going to have a tough time," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

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