According to the “Year of the Republican Establishment” narrative, it was the finest of nights for Mitch McConnell and his GOP elite friends. He crushed his own tea party opponent, Matt Bevin and the “Establishment” candidate for Senate in Oregon got lucky when a multi-faceted stalking scandal occurred after most voters had cast ballots by mail. And best of all, in a state where a wild primary threatened GOP calculations to take over the Senate, Georgia, the two “Establishment” candidates will meet in a runoff after snuffing potential Todd Akin clones Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey and possible trouble-maker Karen Handel.
It’s a nice picture, and welcome after the troublesome Senate results last week in Nebraska. But its linchpin, the Georgia Senate race, is a bit — actually a lot — more complicated than that.
One of the two “Establishment” candidates, Jack Kingston, ran a savagely ideological campaign that was on nearly every issue indistinguishable from a Tea Party crusade. He engaged in welfare demagoguery, embraced that hardy grassroots conservative pet rock, the Fair Tax, and bit the Chamber of Commerce hand that was feeding him by assaulting the Common Core education initiative as “Obamacare for Education.” And no one would have been surprised had he painted the National Journal “most conservative record in the race” emblem that was featured in all his ads across the shabby station wagon that this career appropriator and quite wealthy man used to signify his skinflintedness.
He narrowly defeated former Secretary of State Karen Handel — another former “Establishment” figure who was transformed into a fiery ideologue after narrowly losing the 2010 governor’s race — on a sea of money and via the pull of geography. He outspent Handel roughly 5-to-1 — not counting the million or so the Chamber spent on his behalf. Just as importantly, he banked a huge advantage over Handel in and just beyond his southeast Georgia congressional district, and she couldn’t make it up in her metro Atlanta stronghold while competing with three other North Georgia candidates.
One of those, of course, was first-place finisher David Perdue, who spent nearly as much (and also had significant out-of-state Super PAC help) as Kingston, while espousing a stern but generic “hard-core conservative” message, to use his term. If his performance in the primary on Tuesday was especially pleasing to Mitch McConnell, it would have to be tempered by the fact that the Romneyesque former corporate turnaround specialist vowed not to vote for another McConnell term as Majority Leader.
Will Perdue and Kingston now join hands in a genial “Establishment” runoff, sure not to give ammunition to Democrat Michelle Nunn, who has run ahead of both of them in some recent polls? I doubt it. Kingston has already gone after Perdue for alleged support of Common Core (which, of course, Perdue, whose cousin Sonny was a national leader in the initiative, denies) and joined Handel and the rest of the field in blasting the front-runner for a recent reference to the need for more federal revenues (which Perdue did not, amazingly, follow up by immediately intoning an anti-tax-increase oath). And Perdue fans have to worry a bit that their man does have a tin ear and a tendency to unforced errors (he single-handedly lifted Handel into contention by casually disrespecting her — and countless Georgia voters — for failing to go to college).
It will be interesting to see how Georgia Tea Folk line up for the runoff. Herman Cain is already in Perdue’s corner. Late in the night, major Handel backer Erick Erickson said he’d support Kingston. In an unusually long runoff campaign (nine weeks), with both candidates having access to plenty of money, the steady drift-to-the-right that characterized the entire primary field could continue.
Some Republican Establishment folk celebrated the fact that they won’t have to deal with Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey any more. But looking at the primaries to replace those wingnut eccentrics last night, it may be too soon to gloat. Running first in the primary to succeed Broun was the Rev. Jody Hice, a radio talk show host who’s obsessed with fighting same-sex marriage, once endorsed a Republican presidential candidate from the pulpit to defy IRS church-state separation regs, and in an earlier race put up billboards reading “Tired of Obama’s Change?” with the “C” turned into a hammer-and-sickle.
As for Gingrey’s seat, the leader in the primary was a former state senator named Barry Loudermilk, whom I described as follows earlier in the cycle;
Loudermilk became famous even before running for office as the author of a post-9/11 local newspaper screed that went globally viral, encouraging non-Christians and immigrants to pack up and leave America if they didn’t like “our culture.” During his climb through the Georgia Republican ranks, Loudermilk has championed a variety of anti-immigrant bills, “personhood” initiatives, efforts to shut down all state agencies not specifically authorized by the state constitution, and serial theocratic gestures. He was also one of the participants in a colleague’s “briefing” for state senators on the evil United Nations Agenda 21 effort to destroy private property rights.
Loudermilk’s opponent in the runoff, who will be the “moderate” in the race? It’s Bob Barr. No, Georgia’s not out of the teapot just yet.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.