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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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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.”

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