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In Georgia Senate Primary, GOP Fray Could Take a Toll

In Georgia Senate Primary, GOP Fray Could Take a Toll

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 19, 2014

ATLANTA -- Georgia Republicans may be breathing easier ahead of Tuesday's crowded U.S. Senate primary. Two gaffe-prone House conservatives, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, have sunk to the bottom of the polls and three candidates considered more electable have risen to the top in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

But that trio -- businessman David Perdue, Congressman Jack Kingston, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel -- is now engaged in its own divisive battle. And the problem for Republicans is that this is only Round 1: The GOP nominee almost certainly won’t be determined on Tuesday, as no candidate is likely to clear the 50 percent threshold required to move on to the general election. Instead, the top two candidates will duke it out for another nine weeks.

It figures to be one long, hot summer in Georgia.

The Peach State primary comes as the political world assesses the strength of the Tea Party, the apparent resurgence of the so-called Republican establishment, and whether legislative experience in Washington is as toxic as it was four years ago. An establishment Republican chalked up a victory earlier this month in nearby North Carolina, as state legislator Thom Tillis won the party’s Senate nomination in a three-way contest. Last week, Tea Party-backed Ben Sasse handily won the GOP primary in Nebraska, but vowed to work with party leaders in the Senate if he gets there. And this week Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to beat back a conservative challenge from Matt Bevin.

In many ways the Georgia primary has it all. Perdue is a self-funder with experience as a corporate turnaround specialist (he’s a former CEO of Reebok, Dollar General and Pillowtex), and those companies’ record of job loss has drawn comparisons to Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital tenure. Kingston is an appropriator who has been serving his Savannah district in Congress for 22 years and has support from the Chamber of Commerce and Fox News host Sean Hannity. And Handel is something of a Tea Party-establishment hybrid, with past legislative experience, a near win in the 2010 governor’s race against Nathan Deal, and endorsements from Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and conservative blogger Erick Erickson. She resigned from Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2012 over controversy involving the foundation’s funding for Planned Parenthood.

If Republicans want to take over the Senate in November, they almost certainly must hold on to Georgia. The state’s conservative bent and the fact that President Obama lost by seven points there two years ago -- and remains unpopular now -- give Republicans reason to be optimistic.  But if Tuesday’s result doesn’t determine the GOP nominee, it will give continue to give Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn breathing room while the remaining two Republican candidates contend for the nomination. Nunn, a former CEO of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Institute and daughter of the popular former-Sen. Sam Nunn, has been gliding through the political season raising money and running unimpeded by intra-party opposition.  She has been airing bio spots throughout the state -- none of which mention that she’s a Democrat.

“Nunn can putz around and collect big checks,” said one Georgia Republican strategist, “and it can be tough for whoever the [GOP] victor is to hit the ground running because they’re going to be wiping their wounds and Nunn is going to have $7 million.”

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Perdue leading the GOP field by nearly eight points. He is also the only candidate leading Nunn in a head-to-head matchup. Perdue has donated nearly $3 million to his campaign, and his ability to air ads early in the season helped boost his name recognition in the race. (He is the cousin of former Gov. Sunny Perdue, which also helps.) Electability is part of Perdue’s pitch to voters, and his self-described “outsider” label is his central selling point on that front.

The latter has also been his opponents’ key point of attack. Handel and Perdue have had a particularly personal and negative go of it. One of the most memorable potshots came when Perdue criticized Handel for not having a college degree. This line alienated some grassroots Republicans -- and Handel knew enough to pounce on it. “When I heard David’s comments, I thought, ‘Bless his heart, he’s been overseas too long and lost touch with our values: hard work and making the most of life,” Handel says in a radio ad, noting that she left a troubled home at age 17. (Perdue subsequently called Handel to apologize.)

Handel has also tried to capitalize on another potential liability: a shoestring campaign budget. Instead of being defensive about her fundraising difficulties, she has accused Perdue of trying to buy the race and Kingston of raising money from his post in Washington. “Unlike Jack Kingston, I am not a sitting Congressman who can hold lavish fundraisers with Washington lobbyists to the tune of millions raised,” she said in a fundraising email.

Perdue, more than most, knows that Georgia voters sometimes rally behind an underfunded candidate. A dozen years ago, Sonny Perdue upended Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes by running a populist campaign -- despite being out-funded by 7-to-1 margin. So the candidate has fired back at Handel by accusing her of using taxpayer money for a luxury car she drove as secretary of state.

Both Handel and Kingston have criticized Perdue for his absence from the state and the Republican Party in Georgia, spotlighting time he has spent abroad. Kingston has also focused on Perdue’s business career, particularly his time as head of the North Carolina-based textile company Pillowtex, which folded.

“Perdue chewed up businesses; 8,000 jobs were lost,” the narrator in a recent Kingston ad says. “He took a million-dollar bonus, and also millions more from Obama's stimulus. And Perdue has no problem with Obama's common core standards which nationalize schools, eating away at local control.”

Perdue gotten into some trouble with conservatives first by voicing support for the Obama administration-backed Common Core educational standards and telling the Macon Telegraph he would support a combination of spending cuts and increased taxes to address the nation’s debt.

“I was never able to turn around a company just by cutting spending,” he said. “You had to figure out a way to get revenue growing. And what I just said, there are five people in the U.S. Senate who understand what I just said. You know revenue is not something they think about.”

Perdue’s opponents quickly seized on that comment.   Kingston said any raise in taxes, even accompanied by spending cuts, would hurt the economy. Handel, in a recent debate, went a step further: “Exactly who is this guy? He's not a conservative and I question whether he's even a Republican,” she said, according to the Associated Press.

The two candidates not mentioned much these days when it comes to the primary are the ones who were talked about the most in the early stages of the campaign. Broun (who called evolution “lies straight from the pit of hell”) and Gingrey (who asserted that former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s much-rebuked comments on “legitimate rape” were partly correct) were top concerns for Republicans hoping to avoid a replay of 2012 Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, in which unforced errors led to Democratic victories in winnable states for the GOP.

With control of the Senate again at stake, Republicans are breathing a slight sigh of relief. But another round of this primary would likely lead to more GOP infighting. And the candidate many observers feel would be most electable in November --Perdue -- is getting beat up the most by his rivals.

“The campaigns feed on attacking him,” says Charlie Harper, a Republican strategist and editor in chief of Peach Pundit.

Perdue’s “main advantage is he is not an office holder, and he’s not a member of Congress, so he doesn’t have votes to explain,” says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

But attacks on Perdue’s business experience figure to resurface in the next round and could help Democrats in the general election. “At the end of the day, what it’s really doing is feeding Democrats information,” the GOP strategist said, “giving them more ammunition.”

Scott Conroy contributed to this article.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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