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Georgia's Senate Primary: A Race to the End

9:35 AM, May 20, 2014 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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If there’s one thing we know about today’s Georgia Republican primary for U.S. Senate, it’s that we really don’t know who will win. Or, more precisely, we don’t know which candidates will come in first and second to proceed to the inevitable runoff election in July. With five major candidates in the running, it’s unlikely the winner will get the necessary 50 percent support to avoid a runoff. So even after today, we still won’t know who will be the Republican nominee in November. 

Georgia

First, who’s likely not to make the runoff? Phil Gingrey hasn’t led in a single poll all year, despite some early perceptions that the 71-year-old metro Atlanta congressman was formidable. Most polls in the last few months have found Gingrey at the bottom of the pile. Gingrey’s House colleague Paul Broun, 68, has similarly fizzled out, appearing strong when he entered the race last year but failing to earn above 15 percent in any poll.

Republicans in Georgia and Washington are collectively breathing a sigh of relief over this development. Both Gingrey and Broun have a history of controversial statements about abortion and science that party leaders and donors feared could destroy the GOP’s chances of holding on to the seat, as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did in Missouri and Indiana, respectively, in 2012. The talk among Atlanta-area business leaders was that if Broun became the GOP nominee, many in the business community would consider backing the likely Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn. 

The primary, then, comes down to the other three candidates. David Perdue, 65, is the most likely to make it to the runoff. A wealthy businessman, first-time candidate, and cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue, he has led every poll in the race since February—sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. His well-funded campaign was up early and often with TV and radio ads, as well as direct mail. Perdue has benefitted from being the only major candidate to never have held elected office, running with an “outsider” message and against the “babies” of Washington. By contrast, Perdue has been an executive at companies like Reebok and Dollar General, and earned a reputation as a turnaround artists with failing companies.

But Perdue has run into some trouble lately, first by the release of a video last month that showed him disparaging one of his fellow candidates, Karen Handel, as merely a “high-school graduate.” It was an unforced error—Perdue was trying to make the case that his business experience helps him understand the complex economic problems the country faces—and one that Team Handel took full advantage of. (Handel left home and an abusive father at age 17, taking college classes but never graduating. More on her in a bit.) 

More recently, Perdue’s opponents have jumped on his apparent endorsement of tax increases as a way to fix the deficit. Speaking to the editorial board of the Macon Telegraph, he said he would support both cutting spending and raising revenue, the latter of which one editorial board member pointed out was a euphemism for increasing taxes. Perdue reportedly “chuckled” at that and emphasized that he, unlike most others in the U.S. Senate, understands the need to raise revenue.

While these slip-ups have garnered plenty of media attention, it hasn’t really hurt his position in the polls. Expect to see Perdue in the runoff, though his chances to win the nomination depend on who his opponent is.

Jack Kingston, the 59-year-old Savannah-based congressman, emerged as the likely number two soon after the Broun and Gingrey flameouts. His 11 terms in the House have helped him raise a considerable amount of cash, and behind Perdue, he was certainly the best-funded candidate. But all those years in Congress have also given Kingston a record that, while well within the conservative mainstream, left him open to attacks from the right, particularly on spending. Kingston’s rural district in south Georgia relies primarily on agriculture, and he has been criticized for supporting pork-laden farm bills and earmark spending that’s unpopular up north in the Atlanta suburbs. Kingston responded with a sharp right turn in the latest session of Congress, joining Broun, Gingrey, and a handful of conservative House members in opposing spending deals and procedural moves supported by John Boehner. Kingston even voted against the Paul Ryan-authored budget, despite having voted for it previously, because its spending cuts did not go far enough.

The question is, did anyone in Atlanta notice? Kingston has polled consistently in second place but has only seen a small surge in support in the last month. He’s expected to lock down his base in South Georgia, but the GOP primary vote is in the Atlanta media market, where Kingston suffered from a lack of name recognition. He and his supporters (like the Chamber of Commerce) have spent plenty of money trying to boost him with TV and radio ads, and endorsements from Sean Hannity and former WSB radio host Neal Boortz have likely helped, too.

Kingston’s TV ads have had two themes. One is conservative Georgia values, depicted with Kingston driving his beat-up, wood-paneled station wagon through Spanish-moss covered groves of live oaks. They evoke an older Georgia, though one that may not be relevant to folks in metro Atlanta, many of whom aren’t native Georgians and may only drive south of Macon on their way to Florida. The second theme is that Kingston is a spendthrift, with ads featuring his four grown children reminiscing about how cheap their father is. It’s an important message for a candidate with a spending problem in the House, and the ads are certainly memorable. Kingston needs to get second place in the majority of metro Atlanta’s 20 or so counties if he hopes to get to the runoff.

That brings us to Karen Handel, the wild card in the race. The 52-year-old Handel is a former Fulton County (Atlanta) commissioner and was elected Georgia’s secretary of state in 2006. In 2010, she came in first in a crowded GOP primary for governor, but lost an exceedingly close runoff (around 2500 votes) against the eventual governor, Nathan Deal. Deal had succeeded in painting his opponent as a relative liberal on social issues, despite her stated pro-life position. Handel was later a vice president at the Susan G. Komen cancer foundation, where she was caught up in a controversy over the charity’s funding of Planned Parenthood. Komen had decided to cut off its funding, a move Handel supported and defended, only to reverse its decision and restore the funding amid outcry from pro-abortion groups. Handel resigned after the reversal.

The Komen episode earned Handel conservative credibility on social issues, but she began her race for the Senate far behind the others in both the polls and in money. It wasn’t until late March that Handel received a big break in the form of an endorsement from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee who has become something of a primary kingmaker. On the heels of the Palin endorsement came the discovery of the video featuring David Perdue referring to Handel as a high-school graduate. Both episodes, one after the other, gave Handel plenty of free local and national media time, as well as a boost in fundraising. Enough money came in to produce a TV ad calling her congressmen opponents “career politicians” and Perdue an “out-of-touch millionaire elitist.”

A more recent endorsement from Erick Erickson, the Atlanta drive-home talk radio host and TV pundit, has only added to Handel’s momentum in the final weeks of the primary race. A few internal polls showed her overtaking Kingston and just behind Perdue, but in all likelihood, it’s a toss-up between Handel and Kingston for second place and a chance in the runoff. Handel will need to beat Kingston in those same metro Atlanta counties. Handel's momentum took off at maybe the perfect time for her, just as early voting was about to begin. But against two-better funded, more consistent campaigns, it remains to be seen whether she can overcome her early deficits.

All five candidates are looking to replace retiring Republican senator Saxby Chambliss. While Michelle Nunn and national Democrats were hoping for a match-up with Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey, seeing both candidates are their best shot to win back a Senate seat, the likely nomination of either Handel, Kingston, or Perdue makes that race more difficult for the Democrats.

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