At the Rotary Club in LaGrange, Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston answered every question, shook every hand he was offered with a “thanks, man,” or a “yes, sir,” and stooped quickly to pick up a business card that had fallen from a woman’s purse.
In his pursuit of the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Saxby Chambliss, Kingston left his audience with the impression that he is friendly, reasonable, and entirely competent. But in a GOP primary packed with Tea Party pleasers, pro-life crusaders, gun lovers, and a millionaire whose cousin is a former governor, being friendly, reasonable and entirely competent may be Jack Kingston’s biggest problem.
“I think he was pretty much right on it,” said Danny Graddy, a Republican and financial planner from Pine Mountain, Ga., who got what he was looking for in Kingston’s Rotary speech, which focused on preserving America’s military, supporting agriculture in the state, balancing the federal budget and ending the gridlock in Washington. “But being right on it and getting elected are two different things.”
To Graddy’s point, the congressman is stuck in what amounts to a five-way tie with Rep. Paul Broun, Rep. Phil Gingrey, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, and former CEO David Purdue. With just five weeks left until early voting begins for the May 20 primary, most polls show the five separated only by a margin of error. A recent PPP poll showed Broun with a double digit lead over the entire field.
An automated poll released Thursday showed Perdue, the former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, leading with 29%, Kingston second with 19%, and Gingrey, Broun and Handel in the low double digits. Only Purdue and Kingston have run statewide television ads so far, a sign of each man's financial advantage. The deep-pocketed Perdue has given his campaign more than $1 million, while Kingston has dominated the money race to face off against Michelle Nunn in November, with more than $4 million raised.
Broun has gotten activists’ (and the media’s) attention by giving away magazine-fed rifles on his campaign website, racking up local Tea Party endorsements, or offering up quotable declarations like calling evolution and other sciences “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
But Kingston is taking a different approach, suggesting his more than two decades in the House is proof that he knows Washington well enough to make it work for Georgia and listing “uniting the country” as one of his top priorities—a concept so unusual in GOP primaries it is almost radical.
“I come from a county where you need to get things done,” he said. “Sometimes yelling and screaming is not the most effective way to get things done.”
One recent exception to Kingston's message of moderation was a comment, captured by a Democratic campaign tracker, in which Kingston suggested school children sweep cafeteria floors to help put money toward free lunches.
Kingston said the comment was part of a broader conversation about the benefits of chores for children that was misconstrued.
"Politics being politics, it's very difficult these days to have discussions without that 'I got you' sound bite."
But he said it's also evidence that Democrats consider him a formidable opponent.
"There's no question about it. They follow me around. They asked for 30 years of Freedom of Information Act requests on me. They're pretty focused on me."
The Democrats may be watching him closely, but what he really needs is more attention from Republicans. To that end, Kingston is also quick to talk up his conservative bona fides, calling himself “a repeal and replace guy” on Obamacare, listing his conservative ratings from National Journal (90 percent) and the American Conservative Union (95.8 percent). Tea Partiers have cried foul on Kingston’s commitment to budget-cutting, outing him as a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, but he quickly points out he’s the only House member in the race to give money back to the Treasury from his office budget.
The balance in Kingston’s message reveals his dilemma, which is nearly identical to that of Republicans nationally. He needs to capture Tea Party activists’ passion, social conservatives’ electoral power and Chamber of Commerce Republicans’ money, all without running so far to the right that he becomes unelectable in November.
“What I said today at the Rotary is what I say to the Tea Party groups and they appreciate it. I say it to mainstream Republican groups and they appreciate it,” he said. “I would unify the conservative family and I believe the conservative family needs to be unified.”
It’s a whisper-thin needle to thread, but it’s the only way to win.
“Whoever we nominate, they have to make sure that they are appealing to a broad base,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a top adviser to former Gov. Sonny Purdue, the late Sen. Paul Coverdell and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
“The Republican primary electorate is very different from the electorate you’ll see in the general election. If all you are going to do is try to appeal to the most conservative elements of the Republican primary electorate, it’s going to make it very difficult for you to move to the center to win independent voters.”
The off-year Republican primary in Georgia has recently rewarded the candidate who is best known, best financed, and most conservative. The 2010 Republican primary drew fewer than 700,000 voters in the state of nearly 10 million, with now- Gov. Nathan Deal beating Handel in the Republican primary runoff by fewer than 3,000 before defeating former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes by 10 points.
A similar electorate should favor Kingston, who, like Deal, is a House member from outside of Atlanta whose appeal in the past has included business and social conservatives.
But GOP veterans say a combination of an unusually early primary, major winter storms and a late legislative session has combined to make the race “a wide-open crap shoot,” with the eventual winner anybody’s guess. While the business-friendly Kingston is assumed to be the safest bet to keep the seat in Republican hands, many leaders worry privately that Broun’s penchant for making headlines could win him the primary in the summer, but make him all but unelectable in November.
For Donny Graddy, it’s like a movie he’s seen before.
“I worry about how crowded the field is,” he said. “If you look back at the 2012 presidential primary, basically Republicans shot off all 10 of their toes before they ever ran against a Democrat. I don’t want to see that happen again.”