The specter of a potential Tea Party-fueled, Todd Akin rerun in the Georgia Senate race is nearly dead. With one day left until the Georgia primary, the three leading candidates for the state’s open Senate seat are David Perdue, a polished former CEO, Rep. Jack Kingston a 20-year veteran of the U.S. House and longtime appropriator, and Karen Handel, a former Secretary of State and onetime aide to Marilyn Quayle who has not only won state-wide before, but also came within 3,000 votes of beating Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, in 2010.
Nowhere to be found in any poll’s prediction of who will make it to the July runoff is Tea Party favorite Rep. Paul Broun, the one-man quote machine so prone to head scratchers (like declaring evolution and embryology as “lies straight from the pit of Hell”) that Georgia Republicans openly worried he would make Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment look like a tutorial by Aristotle, and in so doing, hand the Senate seat over to Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn no questions asked.
Also M.I.A. from Tuesday’s potential winners is Rep. Phil Gingrey, Broun’s colleague in the House Tea Party Caucus, who last year complained about “being stuck here in Washington making $172,000 a year.” Like Broun, the idea of a Gingrey victory going into November had given local GOP leaders similar symptoms of acute heartburn and visions of catastrophe.
For the Nunn campaign, Tuesday’s results will not be the Broun/ Gingrey coronation they’d hoped for that would have given her an open shot at winning. For the remaining Republicans, the end of the primary will merely be the beginning of a frenzied sprint to the runoff.
If the next two months look anything like the last two, the campaign will be expensive, personal and a contest to prove who is more conservative, more of an “outsider,” and best positioned to defeat Nunn in November.
Perdue’s message is as simple as “The Outsider” tag line emblazoned on the side of the red, white and blue RV he has used to barnstorm the state. After a barbeque lunch for his campaign volunteers in the parking lot of his company’s Atlanta headquarters, Perdue said his 40 year career in business and zero-year career in politics make him the best man to start solving the country’s problems.
“We have four career politicians in the race. If you like what’s going on, pick one of them, but you know nothing’s going to change,” he said. And despite being a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue and former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, he insisted that he’s anything but an inside man.
“Who can beat Michelle Nunn? She’s an outsider, she polls very well against these career politicians,” Perdue said. “I’m an outsider, too. We think it’s because I’m an outsider, that trumps her outsider. Plus I’ve got a business background and can relate to and add value, too.”
Well versed on the issues and folksy on the stump, the only thing that seems to ruffle him are the charges from Handel and others that he’s an elitist, basically Mitt Romney with a southern drawl.
“When people say, ‘He’s aloof, he was born with a silver spoon,’ those are the people out of touch,” he said. “I am a regular Georgian. The dirt under my fingernails is Middle Georgia clay.”
After explaining that his parents were public school teachers and that he worked his way through college and grad school working construction and loading and unloading trucks at warehouses, he added, “I understand the value of work. I punched a time card. You talk about out of touch? Somebody that’s been in office for 63 years collectively- they have a hard time relating.”
For Karen Handel, just relating to David Perdue is hard enough work in itself.
“This is a man who mocked Georgians who don’t have a college degree and who haven’t lived outside of the country,” she said, referring to an incident in which Perdue referred to Handel as “the high school graduate in the race,” a moment that has in fact bolstered her appeal to some voters. “One of the consistent things I hear out there is how condescending he is. At some point the excuse of not being a politician runs out.”
Handel has based her campaign on being the “one true” conservative in the race, and on that point, she is easily the most overtly conservative of the top three.
After a meet and greet at Tommy’s Barber Shop in Atlanta, she rattled off the issues where it would be impossible for anyone, not just Kingston or Perdue, to run to her right.
On immigration reform: “Secure the borders” and “no amnesty.” On a debt ceiling: “It has to be attached to reforms.” On Mitch McConnell for GOP leader: No, thanks. “To have new leadership you don’t just have new people on the team, you have new people leading the team.”
With 500 precinct captains still on board from her previous statewide runs, Handel is known for having a strong ground game and especially loyal supporters, often described as “rabid.” Brenda Smith is one of them. “I think she is the best candidate and as an aside, I really want to see a woman win. I really want to see some diversity beginning with my bias—women,” Smith said.
But for Carole Kirk of Atlanta, simply being a woman is not enough of a reason to support Handel. Her issues are the debt and the economy and she’s for Perdue.
“He’s a fresh face with a fresh message with a different perspective and I think we desperately need it,” she said. “I always want to support women in everything they do. But I’m also aware of who is the best candidate whether it’s male or female, and in this race, I think it’s David.”
As Perdue, Kingston and Handel make their final appearances around the state Monday, Tea Party supporters will get some of what they’re looking for when Herman Cain goes on the road with Perdue and Erik Erickson campaigns with Handel, who has also been endorsed by Sarah Palin. To answer those endorsements, Kingston picked up a nod from Sean Hannity.
A candidate who attracts Tea Party support could eventually win the Georgia primary, but there will be no “Tea Party victory” in this still red state, due as much to a lack of organization among the hundreds of Tea Party groups as to a lack of widespread acceptance of the label among mainstream Republicans and the weight it would carry into a general election when Georgia Democrats have fielded truly competitive nominees.
For Brenda Smith, the Handel supporter, the Republican brand remains strong. She’s willing to consider the other Republicans in the race if Handel is not the nominee. “I’ll support Mickey Mouse over Michelle Nunn if he’s a Republican,” she said. “Mickey Mouse.”
But Marilyn Gaylor, a dentist in Atlanta and Perdue supporter, is the reason Georgia Republicans can no longer pick just any nominee and call it a day. If Perdue isn’t the GOP's choice, she says she's keeping her options open in the fall. “I would take a look at Michelle Nunn,” she said. “Certainly I would take a look.”