The wide-open Senate GOP primary field in Georgia narrowed to two Tuesday night, when former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue and veteran Rep. Jack Kingston finished first and second, with 31 percent and 26 percent of the vote, and will now head to a July 22 runoff.
Out of the race entirely are former secretary of state Karen Handel, Rep. Paul Broun, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, the most aggressively conservative candidates in the race and the three who had split Georgia’s broad but wildly disorganized Tea Party support among themselves.
Although Handel had maintained a strong grassroots base of support from two previous statewide races, it was no match for the deep pockets of the multimillionaire Perdue, who loaned his campaign $2.1 million on top of millions more raised, and Kingston, who pulled in more than $4 million on his own before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put another $1 million on the pile. Both men were able to spend generously on TV ads in the vote-rich metro Atlanta media market, while the rest of the field was forced to make do with statewide driving tours, email chains, and Facebook blasts.
As the most conservative candidates struggled to raise money, three major groups associated with past Tea Party upsets around the country, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, stayed out of the Georgia race entirely.
With the GOP results still coming in, the Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn, spoke to her supporters with her famous father, former senator Sam Nunn, on stage and gave a preview of the type of soft-focus campaign she’ll be running in November.
“Tonight we sent a signal to Washington that we want something different,” Nunn said. “We want civility. We want collaboration. We want problem solving.”
But what the Nunn campaign really wanted, and didn’t get, was one of the Tea Partiers to run against. Instead of having Broun, Gingrey or Handel as a foil to paint as a symbol of partisan dysfunction, Nunn will have to face off against Perdue, who has no voting record to exploit, or Kingston, who may have 10 terms in the House to attack but is known in the state for his moderate temperament, if not his moderate politics.
The best thing going for Nunn as she prepares to take on Perdue or Kingston is that the Republicans will have to run against each other first. With the longest runoff period in the state’s history ahead of them, the two men are guaranteed an ugly, divisive, and prohibitively expensive runoff fight before they ever make their case to Georgia’s general electorate.
On Tuesday night, Kingston thanked his supporters for their help and wasted no time firing the first shot at Perdue. “I know my voting record is open to public scrutiny, and we’re going to be hearing about it,” he said. “But I say this to my opponent: so is your business record, and we’re going to be hearing about that, too.”
Kingston has already accused Perdue of mismanaging his companies and taking a golden parachute from one that had to declare bankruptcy. In the meantime, Perdue has made it clear throughout the campaign that he would position himself as an outsider running against a Washington crony, no matter which Republican he faced.
He stayed with that successful theme when he gave his victory speech Tuesday night.
“You know one thing we did do tonight,” Perdue said to a cheering crowd of supporters. “We retired three career politicians. And we’ve got one more to go.”