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Perdue, Kingston Top Ga. GOP Senate Field; Runoff Ahead

Perdue, Kingston Top Ga. GOP Senate Field; Runoff Ahead

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 21, 2014

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Georgia Republicans are now one step closer to having a nominee to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah emerged from a crowded, expensive, and divisive primary race Tuesday night. Perdue garnered 30.6 percent of the vote, with Kingston in second place at 25.8 percent. Since neither of the top two finishers cleared the 50 percent threshold, they will compete in a runoff in nine weeks.

The selection of the self-funding former Dollar General CEO and the 11-term congressman is considered a nod to establishment-aligned Republicans in a primary season that has tested the power of the Tea Party.

Both candidates championed aspects of conservatism in courting support and will likely continue to do so in the runoff. And neither one has committed to supporting Mitch McConnell as Senate leader should the GOP win control of the chamber in November.

But their credentials may be more representative of Republican candidates prior to the 2010 conservative wave. Kingston is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, a once much-desired post that has lost its luster amid temporary budgets, spending cuts, and the elimination of earmarks. Perdue, who has spent time abroad, is a wealthy executive who has voiced support for increasing revenues as a way to reduce the deficit.

(Video: Caitlin Huey-Burns on Georgia Senate Race)

The Peach State contest was one of several races Tuesday – including those in Kentucky, Oregon, and Idaho -- expected to give a clearer picture of the GOP and the state of its competing forces. Almost immediately after McConnell handily defeated Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, conservative outside groups that had taken aim at the five-term incumbent threw their support behind him, marking a significant turnaround.

But the Georgia race for the Republican Senate nomination was the most competitive of the night. And, unlike the others, it didn’t come to an end. Because Perdue and Kingston now must dig in against each other, the prolonged race pleases Democrats hoping to make a play for the red-state seat.

At an election night party here in the Buckhead area of Atlanta, Perdue staked his claim for the second round: “We’re going to have a clear choice -- we are going to have a career politician on one side and an outsider with real business experience on the other.” But he also made a pitch for electability, saying whoever emerges from the July 22 runoff has “got to beat Michelle Nunn this fall.” 

Republicans in Georgia insist that any divisions will be bridged after the July 22 runoff, even if Democrats seize upon them now. Nunn, the daughter of a former senator, won the Democratic nomination and plans to strengthen her candidacy given two more months without official opposition. Another legacy candidate, Jason Carter, won the Democratic nomination in the governor’s race. The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter will face Republican incumbent Nathan Deal in November.

With Carter and Nunn, Democrats hope to make statewide gains in the fall by capitalizing on Georgia’s shifting demographics. But an unfavorable climate highlighted by the unpopularity of President Obama and national Democratic policies figures to challenge that effort.

Republicans have to gain six seats to win control of the upper chamber, but holding on to Georgia is built into most calculations. Chambliss is retiring, leaving the seat open this cycle.

Even without an official nominee just yet, national Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief, as they believe they have two electable candidates. Conservative and gaffe-prone GOP Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun finished at the bottom in Tuesday’s tally, each of them hovering around 10 percent.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel was the biggest wild card of the night. She finished third with 22 percent of the vote after running a grassroots campaign with little money or fundraising ability. In 2010, Handel came within striking distance in the governor’s race against Deal. But her campaign this year lacked lucrative backers.

Still, she collected endorsements from Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Erick Erickson, which added some momentum to her candidacy. (As the results were called late Tuesday night, Erickson, a Georgia-based conservative blogger and activist, threw his support behind Kingston.)

Handel also carved out a niche as the self-described “unwavering conservative” in the race. And after Perdue criticized her for not having a college degree, she swung back hard and gained support. She painted Perdue as an elite businessman trying to buy the seat and Kingston as a Washington insider who has been in Congress too long.

Perdue poured $3 million of his own fortune into his campaign, and got a boost by going on the air early in the contest. He is the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and previously served as the chief executive of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General. His opponents labeled him a corporate turnaround specialist whose takeover of companies resulted in job losses. Republicans also seized on his support for raising revenue in addition to cutting spending as a way to address the deficit. Herman Cain, who had Tea Party backing during his 2012 presidential bid, endorsed Perdue and appeared with him at a rally here Monday night.

Kingston portrayed his 20 years in Congress as an advantage, arguing that his votes helped reduce spending in Washington and that he returned to his home district often. The national Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston, which helped him financially, and he was able to raise the most money from outside sources compared to the other candidates.

Polls signal Perdue might be the best positioned to beat Nunn in November. The Democrat had a narrow lead over Kingston and Handel heading into the primary, but trailed Perdue by three points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. 

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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