WASHINGTON, February 13, 2014 — It has been called “the most unpredictable Senate primary of 2014.” In one of the most deeply red states in the nation, a Republican free-for-all has created a power vacuum that Democrats, growing ever-more worried about their ability to hold onto a majority in the upper chamber, are eager to fill. The shocking part: they are gaining ground, thanks to the charismatic center-left daughter of a former senator.
Georgia will play host to a highly contentious Republican primary fight in which eight wildly disparate characters will brawl for the chance to take up the GOP’s mantle in the general Senate race this summer. So far, the candidates have spent nearly all their airtime playing a game of conservative one-upsmanship, sending waves of concern through the Republican establishment.
Strategists worry that the primary will produce a candidate who is too staunchly conservative to win a general election. Memories of Todd Akin et al are still painfully fresh on the GOP’s collective mind: in the 2012 Senate race, Oklahoma Rep. Todd Akin fumbled what was believed to be a surefire Republican win when he claimed that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” almost never get pregnant.
Senator Saxby Chambliss touched off the fight early last year when he announced that he would retire in 2014 rather than seek a third term in office, a move widely seen as a refusal to face an almost-certain conservative primary challenge. Chambliss has built an impressive resume in the Senate, serving as the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee and, informally, as one of House Speaker John Boehner’s oldest friends in Congress. However, he drew fire from tax maven Grover Norquist in 2012 when he broke a pledge not to raise taxes; Chambliss acknowledged that in agreeing to a tax hike he would virtually guarantee a primary challenger in 2014.
His decision to fold put in play a seat that would have been solidly Republican come November. While the GOP is still heavily favored to send one of their own to Washington, the ugly dynamics of the ongoing primary slog have opened the door for Democrats. Michelle Nunn, the likely Democratic nominee, has gained serious traction among minorities, independents, and women– all groups that will be vital for victory in the general election.
Nunn is the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn (D- Ga.), who last appeared on a Georgia ballot in 1990. He ran with the catchy campaign slogan “Nunn better,” and gained the respect of the nation during his nearly 25-year tenure in Washington. In fact, Team Obama reportedly considered him as a potential running mate back in 2008 before they settled on Joe Biden. Today, his daughter stands atop an otherwise weak list of potential Democratic candidates and could conceivably continue his legacy in the Senate.
Despite her party affiliation, Nunn is almost unrecognizable as a Democrat. She opposes gay marriage rights, supports military intervention in Syria, and opposes any “timely implementation” of Obamacare. In interviews, she claims to be “independent-minded” and has resisted attempts by the media to label her a blue dog Democrat. Her positioning is indicative of the pressure any Democrat faces when running for office in a rigidly conservative state, and many worry that if she ascended to the Senate, she would slough her centrist shroud and become a cog in the Democratic congressional machine.
One such detractor is GOP contender Karen Handel, who accuses Nunn of being “just another vote for Harry Reid.” Handel brings her experience as the Georgia Secretary of State and Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to the table, and is no stranger to the brutality of the campaign trail. In 2010, current Governor Nathan Deal narrowly edged her out in the gubernatorial primary run-off, even though she had the backing of big national names like Sarah Palin. Deal dredged up her nearly decade-old contribution to the pro-gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans and used it as fodder against her; despite her repeated denials of ever supporting same-sex marriage, which were lies, the criticism likely handed Deal his slight victory. Handel championed photo identification rules for voters in the 2008 presidential election, which actually saw a record minority turn-out, silencing liberal critics who claimed her move was a “Jim Crow-era tactic” to stifle the minority voice.
Leading Handel ever-so-slightly in the polls is Rep. Phil Gingrey, a favorite of Tea Party voters. Gingrey has held his congressional seat since 2003, and in that time has managed to stir up his share of controversy. In 2009, he made the grave mistake of crossing conservative radio juggernaut Rush Limbaugh when he criticized Limbaugh’s comments about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Boehner. Gingrey took flack from his base and ultimately had to appear on Limbaugh’s show to personally apologize. Diving deeper into hot water, Gingrey defended Akin’s claims during the 2012 race, saying: “[Todd Akin] went on and said that in a situation of rape, of a legitimate rape, a woman’s body has a way of shutting down so the pregnancy would not occur. He’s partly right on that.” He then advocated for creating a legal distinction between legitimate rape and non-legitimate rape, which he defined as a “false accusation.” An obstetrician for nearly forty years, Gingrey pulls a substantial portion of his funding from physicians and medical organizations.
Still, Gingrey has a reputation of loyalty and sticking to his principles, two traits that are rare in entrenched politicians. During his time in the public sector, Gingrey has remained a staunch defender of second amendment rights and has pushed for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
Rep. Paul Broun is wrestling with Gingrey for the title of ‘Most Conservative Candidate,’ slapping the sobriquet on himself at every opportunity. Broun is a member of the Tea Party Caucus, and is seen as the most potentially damaging candidate in the field for the party brand. If he emerges as the Republican victor, some strategists have expressed concern over his ability to best Nunn in November. Among many questionable quotes, Broun has stated that evolution and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight out of the pit of hell.” Still, Broun’s campaign has attracted some big-name endorsements, such as from the conservative non-profit Citizens United and from cooky libertarian-leaning Texan Ron Paul.
Joining Gingrey and Broun is fellow House Rep. Jack Kingston, who many consider a more moderate alternative to the rest of the field. Kingston is a proven fundraiser, beginning this year with a whopping $3.4 million on hand–a total that towered over what his fellow Republicans were able to scrape together. The 11-term congressman has the support of business interests and Georgia GOP stalwarts, and recently attempted to get a leg up on competitors by locking up $1.3 million worth of airtime between now and the May 20th primary.
Also in the mix is David Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok and cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. His latest ad, a quirky five-minute spot that features crying babies in place of his opponents, casts Perdue as a political outsider who knows how to bring about change. Perdue will likely self-fund a large portion of his campaign–he’s already tossed in a million dollars from his own pocket–and has been received well by business-minded conservatives.
Perdue’s entry into the race likely hurt Handel, who herself was once deputy chief of staff to Sonny and would have relied on some of the former governor’s grassroots network for funding and support had David not thrown his hat in the ring.
Art Gardner, a patent attorney, Derrick Grayson, a network engineer, and Eugene Yu, a businessman, round out the clown-car field. Yu, the Korean-born former president of a federation of Korean-American organizations, is also likely to self-fund in the absence of big-ticket donors. None of the three have much skin in the game and are rarely mentioned in the same breath as frontrunners like Gingrey and Kingston.
In spite of the fact that this primary is shaping up to be a crowded mess, Republicans have the upper hand by almost any objective standard. Nunn would have to inspire an unprecedented number of minorities, women, and young people to head to the polls in an off-year election–a feat that just isn’t likely given the national decline in support for the Democratic agenda. Whoever survives the inevitably vicious primary will be “bruised, bloodied, and broke,” according to radio host Martha Zoller, but will hopefully have just enough fight left in them to hobble to the finish line this fall.