Let’s be clear. Cut through the spin. Get right down to it. In the Republican Senate primary in Georgia, there’s only one candidate with a successful, lifelong career in business. There’s only one candidate who has the experience and network of a statewide campaign. There’s only one candidate with the fundraising prowess to have a full war chest from Day One, only one candidate who’s a reliable and respectable conservative, and only one candidate who promises (incessantly, it turns out) to fight for “constitutionally limited government as our Founding Fathers meant it.”
If you’re not keeping count, that’s actually five different viable candidates for the Senate. Among them are three sitting congressmen (Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston), the former Georgia secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, and businessman David Perdue. They’re running to succeed retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss in a state that’s been voting strongly Republican in recent decades. With three months before the May 20 primary, there’s no frontrunner. No one is likely to win 50 percent in the crowded primary field, and there’s no safe bet on which candidates have the best chance of making it into the runoff. One early poll shows all the candidates clustered together, with none getting more than 20 percent support.
“This is a very unique race,” says Eric Tanenblatt, a Georgia GOP veteran and onetime chief of staff to Sonny Perdue, the former governor. The uncertainty of the primary is beginning to worry some Republicans. If the party fails to coalesce around a winning candidate, Michelle Nunn, the moderate Democrat and daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, could pull off an upset. Losing Georgia would put Republicans further away from winning the Senate in a year when many incumbent Democrats are in trouble.
The consensus choice for the “wrong” Republican candidate is Paul Broun, the Athens-based antigovernment congressman who says evolution and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell” and as recently as 2010 said he “didn’t know” if Barack Obama was an American citizen. While the candidates have almost indistinguishable views on policy—they all support repealing Obamacare, oppose amnesty for illegal aliens before border security, and want to roll back federal regulations—in Broun’s view, the others are all crypto-statists.
“I want to fundamentally change government and go back to the foundational principles of limited government and constitutionally limited government as our Founding Fathers meant it,” he says. That means shuttering the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Education, Energy, Labor, and Commerce. And what about his opponents? Well, they haven’t denied they don’t want to close them.
“We’ve got to change the philosophy of the American people to demand a different kind of governance, and what I represent is actually the mainstream thought of America,” Broun says. At a recent candidate forum, he said he would support impeachment proceedings against President Obama.
One influential Atlanta businessman says that if Broun becomes the nominee, “90 percent” of the city’s business community, which constitutes the financial backbone of the state party, would throw their support behind Nunn. The prospect of a Broun primary victory keeps Republican strategists in Washington up at night. In private, top Georgia Republicans say Broun’s nomination would be a “total disaster.”
Phil Gingrey, an OB/GYN and congressman from metro Atlanta’s northwest suburbs, might be a better-funded, more reasonable conservative alternative to Broun. But he also has a tendency to speak off the cuff in ways that horrify strategists. In January 2013, months after Missouri Republican Todd Akin lost a winnable Senate race because of his claim that women cannot become pregnant from “legitimate rape,” Gingrey touched off a media firestorm when he said Akin was “partially right.”
“That was an awkward attempt to explain the unexplainable,” Gingrey tells me. “People, occasionally, are not as articulate as they would like to be.”
So far there’s been little effort by party leaders to mitigate these risks. Both Chambliss and his fellow Georgia senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, are staying quiet. “I’m going to let those guys slug it out, and I’m going to be there when they come out of the primary,” Chambliss says. “The last thing in the world that’d be a good idea for me is to be involved in the primary,” says Isakson gruffly.