MARIETTA, Ga., May 20, 2014 — Months of ideologically-charged back and forth between the seven candidates gunning for the GOP Senate nomination to fill retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat have created a bitter political atmosphere heading into Tuesday’s primary day.
To the casual observer, Georgia’s Republican Senate primary has seemed one long and monotonous march to the right, scored by all the rhetorical sound and fury one might expect from a conservative free-for-all in one of America’s reddest states. Gun giveaways, Tea Party cloisters, and ubiquitous Bible quoting have punctuated a race that seems all but guaranteed to conclude with a Republican popping the champagne cork in November, despite the best efforts of establishment Democrats to advance their lackluster candidate early. The majority of the field’s contenders have subscribed to the logic that the most conservative candidate will be the most successful, regardless of his or her legislative acumen, campaign proposals, or overall likeability.
David Perdue, a highly connected corporate juggernaut with the cavernous pockets to fuel a front-running campaign, has spent much of his airtime name-dropping his 87-year-old mother and highlighting his bluegrass upbringing in an apparent attempt to draw the spotlight away from his time spent in swanky corner offices. Branding himself as a political outsider with the power to shake up the status quo, Perdue has dominated the polls in the months before the election and is widely expected to survive to the run-off.
Not far behind Perdue is seasoned Washington veteran Rep. Jack Kingston, who has spent most of his two decades on the Hill building his reputation as one of the strongest conservatives in Congress. The American Conservative Union, which rates politicians on their levels of adherence to conservative principles, and the National Rifle Association have both stamped Kingston with A-plus ratings, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has poured its resources in boosting the 11-term congressman to the top of the field. While Kingston once occupied the second spot in the polls, a late surge from former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has put his run-off future in jeopardy.
Handel’s near-miss in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary that saw current Gov. Nathan Deal into the Peach State’s highest office has given her the name recognition and state-wide political apparatus she’s needed to run a successful campaign without the stacks of cash that have powered the campaigns of Perdue and Kingston. In addition, big-name endorsements from the likes of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum have lifted her into the fore of the race, leaving Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey in the dust.
Establishment Republicans bemoaned the presence of Broun in the race at its outset, worrying that his propensity for embarrassing gaffes would create an Akin-esque disaster like the one that cost the GOP a Senate seat in Oklahoma circa 2012. While Broun has largely managed to keep his foot away from his mouth this time around, the lack of major outside infusions into his coffers coupled with the electorate’s collective aversion to Washington insiders has left Broun near the bottom of the barrel.
Joining him there is Marietta Rep. Phil Gingrey, a medical doctor and staunch conservative whose lifeless campaign seems to have failed to excite Georgia voters in any meaningful way. Gingrey’s old-school Republicanism hasn’t appeared to connect with the new wave of center-right populism sweeping the state—the same one that will likely carry ostensible outsider Perdue to the top spot on Tuesday.
Often referring to themselves in the third person, candidates have spewed talking points so similar that it almost feels as though they had a secret meeting back in January and wrote them together. Debates hardly live up to their name because nearly every Senate hopeful on the stage cordially agrees with the conservative principles espoused by their opponents, though each attempts to agree a little more forcefully than the last.
The race’s two outliers have bucked this practice, each choosing instead to run unconventional campaigns and adopt unique positions. Art Gardner, a patent attorney and Cobb County native, flouted all common political wisdom by running on a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-compromise platform. His pragmatic centrism was characterized by a bipartisan healthcare plan that addressed the high costs of prescription drugs without touching the searing-hot topic of Obamacare, thus leaving the candidate far above the fray.
MARTA engineer and Christian minister Derrick Grayson’s unfiltered style turned many a head this cycle–sometimes for the wrong reasons. His campaign grabbed national headlines when he and several members of his team traveled to Bunkerville, Nevada to meet with rancher Cliven Bundy, who was then embroiled in a closely watched legal battle with the Bureau of Land Management. Grayson’s catchy campaign slogan—“100% of the Constitution, 100% of the time”—essentially encapsulated the entirety of Grayson’s campaign.
Both Gardner and Grayson lacked the funds to gain any sort of ground in the polls. Neither is likely to advance.
The tense race seems to have boiled down to a three-way slog between Perdue, Kingston, and Handel. Perdue’s spot in the run-off is all but guaranteed given his relatively large lead in recent polls and his significant cash advantage. Unlike the other candidates in the field who saturated the airwaves with ads in the final weeks of the primary, Perdue locked up ad space early and often this spring to seal his first-place position.
Observers of the race will thus be watching the returns Tuesday night in order to see who will join the former Reebok and Dollar Genera CEO in the run-off this summer: Kingston or Handel. Washington stalwarts will likely breath a sigh of relief when the results confirm that two of the three have survived given their fear of losing the seat. Perdue, Kingston, and Handel are each considered to be acceptable, electable candidates with a real chance to defeat Democratic nominee-in-waiting Michelle Nunn.
The Nunn name amounts to a boatload of political capital in the Peach State thanks to the sterling reputation of her father, the legendary Sen. Sam Nunn. But beyond that, Nunn has few features to tout. The head of an Atlanta non-profit for 25 years, Nunn has never held elected office, and her stage presence leaves much to be desired. Despite the cautionary bell-ringing of pundits everywhere, Nunn’s odds will remain relatively slight no matter which of the three GOP front-runners nabs the nomination.
Primaries are often bloody business, and run-offs can leave the last man standing so wounded that he can hardly limp to the finish line. Many have worried that the ugly optics of the present primary and the guaranteed run-off vitriol in the offing this summer will hobble the GOP’s chances of retaining the seat. In order to gain the coveted Senate majority, Republicans must gain just six seats this November. But losing Georgia’s seat will severely complicate that end, and given the race’s national label as Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity, the GOP has a right to be concerned.
However, the political hype over the race’s unpredictability is likely overblown. As long as the Republican run-off’s infighting remains within the bounds of reason, the eventual nominee will have an enormously good chance of landing in the Senate this fall. Georgia is still Georgia—a conservative stronghold with an active Tea Party base and an evangelical streak. Nunn has faced a distinct electoral deficit since she first tossed her hat into the ring, and a little bit of primary rough-housing across the aisle isn’t going to put her over the edge. And as much money as national Democratic groups will likely throw at her in an attempt to steal the seat, Republican organizations will be dumping equally hefty sums into the Republican nominee’s coffers in order to protect it.
The bottom line is that primary violence is normal and even necessary in order to tease out the candidate who can withstand the most scrutiny. Barring any sort of outrageous, slanderous rhetorical affronts, whoever lands the Republican nomination will likely end up with a new job in November. Tuesday’s primary will see Perdue and either Kingston or Handel advancing to the run-off. Yes, primaries occasionally feel like political Hunger Games, but the eventual victor will face an opponent so disadvantaged that his or her injuries won’t be enough to fumble the seat.