Lifelong Georgian Doug Collins easily earned election to Congress from this new North Georgia district, besting Democrat Jody Cooley. Collins marshaled strong support from local political leaders and survived a bitter primary runoff in August, virtually guaranteeing him the opportunity to move from the state House to the U.S. House.
Collins was born in Gainesville and grew up in Hall County. His father was a state trooper, and his mother worked a variety of jobs in town. In 1988, Collins graduated from North Georgia College & State University, where he studied political science and business. The same year, he met his wife, Lisa, at church. He worked in several jobs in the hazardous-materials industry but then felt a calling to the ministry, Collins said in an interview. After spending some time volunteering as a youth minister, he entered the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He later returned to Gainesville, serving as pastor of Chicopee Baptist Church. In 2002, Collins joined the Air Force Reserve and, in 2008, did a tour in Iraq as a chaplain, an experience that he says gave him “a whole different perspective of what freedom is like and what the lack of it is like.”
Beginning in 2005, he attended law school in Atlanta and later opened his own practice in Gainesville. In 2006, Collins successfully ran for the state House from a district north of Gainesville and was reelected in 2008 and 2010. In his third term, he was the floor leader for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, whom he had known since high school.
Reapportionment gave Georgia a 14th seat in the U.S. House. Drawn by Republicans to elect one of their own from a fast-growing, conservative part of the state, the 9th District lies in the state’s northeastern corner, centering on Gainesville and including part of Athens. An important power base in state Republican politics, the district is the home of Gov. Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and House Speaker David Ralston, all Republicans. According to The Cook Political Report, it is the fourth-most Republican district in the country, the most Republican in Georgia, and the most Republican in the Eastern time zone.
Collins’s main primary opponent was Gainesville talk-show host Martha Zoller, a tea party favorite who campaigned as a political outsider. She criticized Collins’s role in devising the referendum to raise the sales tax by a penny to address traffic congestion, which was widely rejected in most of the state. Collins touted his legislative experience crafting budgets and his service in Iraq. He also likened her status as a well-known radio host to an “Obama-style celebrity” and hammered her for having once admitted that Obama was “a nice guy.”
The two fought to a near-draw in July’s primary, with Collins coming out on top, 42 percent to 41 percent, a difference of just 734 votes. In the runoff, Zoller was endorsed by such national figures as Sarah Palin and 2012 presidential candidates Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Deal recorded a robo-call for Collins in the final days before the runoff, and Collins also won support from Ralston and former Democratic Georgia Gov. and former Sen. Zell Miller. Collins played on the local roots of his major endorsers and gathered support with the slogan “We are the 9th District.” In the end, Collins outspent Zoller by 3-to-2 and prevailed in the runoff, 55 percent to 45 percent. Since the district leans so heavily Republican, the party’s nomination was tantamount to election. Collins faced Gainesville lawyer Jody Cooley in the general election and coasted to victory.
Will Feeney contributed to this article.