By Tom Baxter

Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators tried to forge a path out of the jungle, so to speak.

They passed a bill out of a House subcommittee which would have abruptly changed the rules for the upcoming special U.S. Senate election, eliminating the jungle primary system in which everybody of all parties runs together this November, followed by a likely runoff in January. The bill would instead create neat, orderly party primaries to be held May 19, followed by the general election in November between one Republican and one Democrat. Maybe a Libertarian.

Gov. Brian Kemp quickly let it be known that this amounted to changing the rules at half-time, and he would veto the bill, which didn’t advance beyond the House Rules Committee anyway. But coincidentally or not, the bill was like a starting pistol for the race everybody has seen coming. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins made it official Wednesday that he will attempt to unseat U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, got in the race Thursday.

The way each side came down over changing the rules says something about how they size up this race at its inception. Changing the election rules was a project of Collins supporters, who think his popularity with the conservative Republican base would give him an advantage in a short, one-on-one primary race with Loeffler, who is still introducing herself to Georgia voters.

They were joined by all the Democrats on the subcommittee. Democrats have unhappy memories of runoff campaigns against well-funded Republicans, like the one which appears ahead in this race. And a spring primary would have served their purposes also, clearing the field for Warnock to go head-to-head against a Republican in the fall.

All the same, the jungle primary means Loeffler and Collins are likely to spend most of this year bashing each other before they focus on their Democratic rival, and so may not be the worst scenario. Unless, of course, Warnock fails to gather strength over his lesser-known Democratic rivals and finishes behind the two Republicans in November.

The only faction standing up for keeping the rules as they are was Loeffler’s. (Fortunately for Loeffler, her faction includes the governor.) She’s up with a big television buy already, and has the money to fund her campaign all the way into next year. A longer campaign also gives her the time to build a record in Washington.

Here again, however, there’s no certainty in a race this unusual. A longer race leaves more time for an inexperienced candidate like Loeffler to make mistakes, and for the bitterness between Republicans to deepen.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Director Kevin McLaughlin set the tone as soon as Collins announced, branding the North Georgia congressman’s decision as “stunning” in its short-sightedness and selfishness.

“All he has done is put two senate seats, multiple house seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play. The NRSC stands firmly behind Sen. Kelly Loeffler and urges anyone who wants to re-elect President Trump, hold the GOP senate majority, and stop socialism to do the same,” the GOP political operative said in a statement.

The conservative Club for Growth announced it would fund a $3 million ad campaign over the next several weeks, attacking Collins for his positions on economic issues. In days of yore, this would be terrible for a Republican, but in the new Trumpian algebra, it may not work out that way. The Club for Growth took a long time to throw its support to Trump, and Collins wants to make this a race about who’s really, really, really the President’s strongest supporter. Accordingly, he has called the attacks on his record “fake news” and called Loeffler, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, a “pretend farmer.”

One of the most intriguing questions as we trek into the jumgle is whether Trump can resist tweeting about the race at some point, and what effect that might have. Loeffler has spent tons on ads espousing her loyalty to Trump, and will be a reliable vote on Wednesday when the impeachment trial resumes. But even owning a WNBA team makes the newcomer suspect in some circles.

The last question, for now, is Warnock. Can he mount a campaign comparable to that of his chief supporter, Stacey Abrams, and then do it again in January?

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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