SAVANNAH, Ga. March 31, 2014 — A balmy spring afternoon set the scene for a heated debate between the seven candidates vying for retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat in Savannah on Saturday, the fifth in a series of seven before Georgia’s May 20th Republican primary. Outside the doors of the venue, supporters of nearly every candidate gathered beneath a row of lyrical Spanish moss trees to greet incomers with fervent flashes of their campaign signs. The lazy Southern mise en scène belied an intense political battle being waged within the walls of the Savannah Arts Academy, one that could have important implications for the future of the U.S. Senate.
Among the combatants were three sitting congressmen—Reps. Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey, and Paul Broun—former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, activist Derrick Grayson, and attorney Art Gardner. An eighth candidate, Korean businessman Eugene Yu, graced the stage for several previous debates but recently withdrew from the Senate race in order to challenge Democratic Rep. John Barrow in Georgia’s 12th district.
The sheer volume of candidates gunning for the open seat turns nearly every appearance into a stiff competition. Between thinly-veiled political jabs at each other (and some not so thinly-veiled), the motley crew of Senate hopefuls trumpeted in turn the strength and superiority of their Christian conservative values. With the exception of Gardner, who repeatedly emphasized his centrist stance on social issues, the Republican rivals spent much of their airtime dragging each other to the right—a phenomena indicative of the race as a whole.
Half of the popular Athens-based political radio duo Zoller & Bryant took to the moderator’s podium just before show time to whip up the relatively sparse crowd; Tim Bryant’s turn in the director’s chair immediately followed that of co-host Martha Zoller, who moderated the previous debate in Macon. As Bryant introduced each candidate that cat-walked across the stage, thunderous applause broke out for Jack Kingston, who is widely perceived to lead the group.
Kingston held the home field advantage this time around thanks to two decades of representing Georgia’s 1st, which includes Savannah and much of the coastal area. Indeed, his finest debate moments came when Bryant and members of the Georgia Republican Party lobbed him questions especially relevant to the Atlantic coast. Long after the auditorium had emptied, Kingston stood alongside a cluster of tee shirt-clad supporters for photos and handshakes while the other candidates drifted off uncelebrated.
Fellow front-runner David Perdue shined sans a stacked audience, inspiring more than his share of claps and whistles. In addition to touting his business credentials, Perdue harped on his humble Georgia upbringing and frequently cited his 87-year-old mother in an apparent effort to soften his Romney-esque image.
Trailing slightly in the polls is Paul Broun, the rosy-cheeked Tea Party favorite whose fiery Christian convictions have sparked a GOP soul search over how conservative is too conservative for races of a higher profile. A classic flag-pin politician, Broun delivered some of the same lines (verbatim) as he did in previous debates, but his good ol’ boy charisma still managed to rile up the room at key points throughout the evening.
Phil Gingrey of Marietta rounded out the trio of congressmen, claiming a spot on the very edge of the stage and largely avoiding the fray that seemed to engulf several of the other candidates. Karen Handel, the lone lady of the bunch whose wide name recognition can be attributed to a near-miss in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, scored points by criticizing the president and positioning herself as a traditional conservative.
The two grassroots candidates, Art Gardner and Derrick Grayson, each made provocative arguments in their own right during the debate and even received questions directly from Georgia GOP officials. At several points, the two underdogs clashed with each other, once prompting Gardner to respond to Grayson’s barbs by saying: “Rather than make a campaign speech about this or a self-serving, entertaining speech about this, I think I’ll answer the question.”
Candidates rehashed the same discussions about limited government, individual rights, and the authenticity of their respective brands of conservatism that have bubbled up in every debate so far. In fact, on most issues, the seven contenders are nearly indistinguishable. Broun, however, found one way to tell them apart.
“They all want to be me,” he stated in an interview before the debate. “They all talk about wanting a balanced budget. I’ve got the best balanced budget bill there is. They all talk about wanting to create jobs. My jobs bill will create millions of jobs.”
Fresher issues like flood insurance and the Savannah Port project drummed up the most drama. An economic priority 17 years in the making, the Savannah Port project will require hundreds of millions of federal dollars in order to deepen the port’s waters just a few feet. Next year, when larger ships begin passing through the widened Panama Canal, deeper waters in the Savannah Port will become an absolute necessity for maintaining economic saliency.
The project was pushed to the fore of Georgia’s Senate primary when President Obama unexpectedly trimmed its funding from his budget earlier this year—a move that was widely seen as political trickery, designed specifically to hobble the eventual Republican Senate nominee in the general election against Democrat Michelle Nunn this summer.
Those on stage accused each other of not doing enough to lock down the dollars needed. “No one would get 17 years to deliver their project…in the private sector,” Handel said during the debate.
As the congressional point man on the port project, Kingston bristled at the attacks. “Have you ever written a letter in support of it?” he asked his opponents. “Where were they when we met with the White House, over and over again? Or when we met with the four federal agencies that have to sign off on this project? Can they even name the four agencies?”
Although the collective rhetoric of the primary has largely sidestepped complex discussions of social issues–reportedly at the urging of the national GOP powers-that-be in the wake of the Todd Akin debacle–a spirited debate of the sort broke out among the candidates when Grayson was asked a question about reaching out to “non-traditional voters” as a party. He suggested that candidates and party officials “engage them where they are.”
Gardner, a tireless crusader against the traditional conservative positions that form the bedrock of Georgia’s Republican establishment, lamented that “many groups have been pushed away from our party by the hard-right social stances that we’ve taken over the past 20 or 30 years.”
Perdue took a different approach, falling back on his tried-and-true business acumen. “The Republican Party is supposed to stand for economic opportunity,” he said. “Aren’t we the party of emancipation? But we don’t act like it today.”
With the primary pushed back weeks earlier than in previous cycles– falling in May rather than later in the summer— every sentence of these debates carries weight. While each contender attempts to carve out a niche for themselves within the Georgia electorate, they also seem to share a common campaign theme: cleaning house in Washington.
“An individual senator, if he or she has the courage, can stop bad things from happening,” Gingrey said in an interview after the debate. “I feel very strongly that the Senate needs some strong individuals who won’t sacrifice their principles… and [who] will work for the common good, and who have the temperament and the knowledge and the personality to represent this great state of Georgia and make these ten million Georgians proud. And I think Phil Gingrey is the one for that.”
“I am going to go to Washington with guts and resolve to do bold things and solve problems,” Handel explained after stepping off the stage. “I’m not interested in being up there as long as Congressman Kingston or Gingrey or any of those folks. I want to go with a sense of urgency to really get this country back on the right track.”
“I want to take power and money out of the politicians and the bureaucrats in Washington and send the power back to the states and the people, as it should be, and leave dollars in people’s pockets,” Broun said in his interview.
Two more debates will take place before voters head to the polls on May 20: an event in Augusta on April 19 and a final showdown in Columbus on May 10. The field of rivals now has less than two months to make their final arguments to Georgians before the primary, which will almost certainly result in a run-off between the top two candidates. The ultimate Republican nominee for U.S. Senate will be decided on July 22.