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.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee isn’t getting involved, either, at least publicly. Says NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring: “We are confident and comfortable that whichever candidate voters choose in the primary will offer a clear and preferable contrast to Michelle Nunn in the eyes of most Georgians.”
What if they choose wrong? Their other options don’t exactly excite. Karen Handel is the most familiar to voters and has the highest favorability ratings, but she’s not raising much money. Instead, she sets herself apart from the House members as an “outsider” who’s actually cut spending, both as secretary of state and as a county commissioner in Fulton County, the state’s most populous. When asked what spending she cut, Handel struggles to get specific.
David Perdue, despite being a cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue, is practically unknown to voters, owing largely to the fact that he’s never run for office before. A former CEO of Dollar General and of Reebok, Perdue says that’s an asset, and he’s hoping voters are looking for someone new. “I’m the only true outsider,” he says. The question is whether he can raise enough money to buy his way out of obscurity.
Republican hopes to avoid “disaster” may rest with Jack Kingston, the 21-year House veteran from Savannah. Kingston would slip most easily into the role Chambliss has played in the Senate: a friend to agribusiness, an advocate for the military (5 of the state’s 12 military installations are in Kingston’s district), and a south Georgian to counterbalance the influence of metro Atlanta. He also has enough fundraising connections and establishment support to make the most serious play for the runoff.
He’s not perceived as a conservative favorite, though. Kingston’s American Conservative Union lifetime rating is nearly 96, and he has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, but his opponents are hoping to cast him as an insufficiently pure creature of Washington. Kingston supported the recently passed $500 billion farm bill and argues his work on the appropriations committee kept the cost from going higher. But it’s perfect fodder for his opponents in a Republican primary.
In a runoff between Kingston and Broun, the smart money would be on Kingston. “I don’t think Broun’ll be the nominee,” says Tanenblatt, with just a trace of doubt in his voice. Beyond a fervent base of loyal supporters, Broun may not have the ability to sustain a campaign through a runoff. He would need the support of outside groups and super-PACs, most of which are curiously neutral. So far, only Citizens United has endorsed Broun. “We’re watching the race,” says Barney Keller of the Club for Growth.
But a runoff between Kingston and anyone else? That’s harder to predict. “I’d keep my eye on Phil Gingrey,” says Tanenblatt. Or maybe Handel, he says, whom he describes as “one of the hardest-working people in politics.” Or maybe Perdue, a “fresh face” who might be just what the party’s looking for. Maybe even Broun could capture the anti-Obama fever among Georgia Republicans and find a path to victory.
After all, in this race, when you get right down to it, there are only five Republicans who have a real shot at winning.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.