Yesterday’s runoff primaries in Georgia offered some unexpected drama, with David Perdue narrowly upsetting favored Senate opponent Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA). But the big picture is that the two “Establishment” candidates in this long contest wound up fighting to the finish in a competition characterized by heavy spending aimed at tarring each other as unacceptably moderate. No matter who won or lost, it would be a “true conservative” representing this state’s very conservative GOP “base” in the general election.
The transformation of the candidates began during the primary when Kingston used heavy support from the Chamber of Commerce and other K Street backers to depict himself as the most conservative candidate in the race, and attack Perdue for allegedly favoring the Chamber’s big priority of implementing the Common Core education standards (which Kingston called “Obamacare for Education”).
Perdue, whose cousin, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), was heavily involved in promoting Common Core, forswore the whole idea, of course. Both candidates accused each other of being squishy on fiscal issues, with both winding up pretty much in Ted Cruz’s “never vote for a debt limit increase” camp. A Perdue gaffe in which he forgot to rule out tax increases forever and ever in a media interview gave Kingston and reminted hard-core conservative Karen Handel considerable traction. And when Kingston secured post-primary endorsements from third-place finisher Handel and fourth-place finisher Phil Gingrey, he seemed to have the upper hand in the “most conservative” competition, and led handily in early runoff polls.
With both candidates continuing to attack each other as secret RINOs (Kingston being heavily financed by the Chamber, and Perdue by his own wallet), the race got nasty and tendentious, and public interest waned. The last major blow was a Perdue ad attacking Kingston for being a front-man for the Chamber’s support for immigration “amnesty,” a clever appropriation of the latest “base” enthusiasm.
In the end, with turnout barely reaching double-digits, down about 20 percent from the primary, geography appeared to have decided the contest. Perdue augmented his primary advantage in metro Atlanta and middle Georgia just enough to exceed Kingston’s base in his coastal congressional district, with Kingston’s Atlanta endorsers Handel and Gingrey not delivering enough votes to make up the difference. It’s hard to say in the end whether the winner or loser represented either “wing” of a state party where there are never enemies to the Right. It is clear, however, that the big loser was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lost its integrity along with more than 3 million dollars.
One of the big “stories” of the May primary in Georgia was that the U.S. House would be rid of noisy wingnuts Reps. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Phil Gingrey (R-GA). But the House runoffs in their districts produced intensely “constitutional conservative” successors. Gingrey, never the sharpest tool in the congressional shed, will be replaced by state senator Barry Loudermilk, a more disciplined ideologue who crushed former congressman and 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr in a sign of how far right Barr’s former district has drifted. Broun’s successor as Republican nominee is a worthily wild candidate, Baptist minister and radio talk show host Jody Hice, famed for homophobic outbursts, and for billboards he put up in an earlier race that replaced the “O” in the president’s name with a hammer-and-sickle.
Kingston will not be succeeded by the similarly colorful “constitutional conservative” in his own House district, Dr. Bob “Christian Conservative” Johnson, who lost the runoff yesterday (probably due to elevated turnout attributable to Kingston’s campaign) to state legislator Buddy Carter despite support from the Club for Growth and Sarah Palin. But presumably Carter would follow Kingston’s lead into movement-conservative repositioning if he were ever to run statewide. That’s how Georgia Republicans roll.
There was considerable speculation going into the runoff about which right-trending Senate candidate would be a riper target for Democrat Michelle Nunn, who’s been calmly raising money and staying out of controversy during the long GOP contest. According to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages, she’s been running even with Perdue and a couple of points ahead of Kingston. The conventional wisdom suggested the eleven-term House incumbent Kingston would be more vulnerable to a first-time candidate like Nunn. But Perdue doesn’t have Kingston’s regional base (my own quip was that Perdue’s base is low-information voters who watch a lot of television), and he’s been gaffe-prone. In many respect, he’s a deep-fried Mitt Romney with shallower pockets. And the resemblance includes a post-nomination need to “Etch-a-Sketch” his way back to the political center.
Perdue will have a partisan advantage in a Georgia midterm, but Nunn’s proved to be a very disciplined and attractive candidate, running on a ticket with an equally disciplined and attractive gubernatorial candidate with the equally familiar name of (Jason) Carter. Georgia Republicans may yet regret the time and money they’ve spent this cycle pandering to their own “base,” and winning ugly in primaries.
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.