Battle In Georgia: An All-Out War in Georgia’s GOP Senate Primary Race
ROME, Ga. — The once-peaceful Georgia GOP Senate primary has devolved into an all-out brawl in its final days, ripe with charges of sexism, arrogance, lying, distortion and even “promoting teenage homosexuality” — and that’s just a taste of the venom.
Three candidates — businessman David Perdue, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Rep. Jack Kingston — have emerged as the leading contenders ahead of Tuesday’s low-turnout primary, scrapping for every vote to make it into what promises to be an even nastier two-person runoff lasting nine weeks.
It had appeared in recent weeks that the Georgia race was the latest example of the GOP establishment having its way in critical Republican primaries over tea party foes. Two far-right candidates who worried establishment types faded in the polls, a sign that perhaps the GOP was ready to move past the intraparty wars that have cost Republicans the Senate majority time and again.
So much for that.
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The fight here underscores a larger dynamic this midterm year: While the environment is ripe for a Senate GOP majority, one or two missteps could leave Republicans frustratingly short for a third straight election cycle. Party officials insist they won’t let that happen, but the vitriol among the candidates — and their efforts to outrun one another to the right — are precisely what Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn and her allies were hoping for.
“I’m a girl, that means I fight like a girl,” Handel told about 50 supporters enjoying Southern barbecue in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. “And there ain’t nothing meaner. They better watch out.”
Perdue, a wealthy former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, has endured weeks of attacks from Handel that he’s an “elitist” and a liberal masquerading as a conservative.
So, when he was asked about Handel during an interview here in Northern Georgia aboard his spacious campaign RV, he had this to say: “She ran five times for five different races, got elected twice, didn’t finish either term.” Perdue was referring to Handel leaving the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to run for secretary of state, then cutting that term short to seek the governorship in 2010. “I just believe that defines self-interest over the interests in serving the constituents.”
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Handel seethed at those comments. “Would we be having this conversation if I were a man?” she said. “I would argue not.”
And on and on it goes.
Sprint to the right
The candidates are simultaneously running to the right — questioning the science of climate change, vowing to privatize entitlement programs for future beneficiaries and, in some cases, calling for the self-deportation of undocumented immigrants — and dubbing their opponents sellouts to the conservative cause. It’s the only way to win a crowded GOP primary. But the winner will have to account for those stances in the general election — in a state that favors Republicans but not prohibitively so.
The Georgia seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss is one of just two Republican seats that Democrats have a serious shot at winning this fall, making the race a must-win for the GOP if it wants to take back the Senate for the first time since 2006.
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Republicans are confident that President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity and the entrenched GOP power base in the state will ultimately make it impossible for Democrats to steal the seat.
The final weeks of the primary have narrowed the race to three top contenders, polls show. But there are no neat dividing lines.
With the support of Sarah Palin and conservative pundit Erick Erickson, Handel is making an aggressive play for the tea party wing — though grass-roots activists here are split and big-spending conservative outside groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund have sat out the primary. Kingston boasts the backing of Sean Hannity, while Perdue touts his support from Georgia native Herman Cain.
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If that’s not enough to flummox a GOP voter trying to sort out the field, just listen to the rhetoric.
“I’m a hard-core conservative,” Perdue said when asked about his political ideology. To which Kingston responds: “I think if you’re conservative — at some point in your life — you voted in a number of Republican primaries and participated in some Republican events. … There’s not much evidence to convict David Perdue of being a lifelong Republican.”
Meanwhile, Handel gasped and chuckled upon hearing that the 11-term Kingston boasted of being a staunch conservative.
“Come on!” she exclaimed, listing a series of controversial votes the congressman has cast, most involving spending bills and earmarks. “He’s a seat warmer.”
At the same time, Rep. Phil Gingrey, a six-term congressman from the northern Atlanta suburbs who is falling in the polls, unleashed an ad this week dubbing the three leading contenders as “moderates” — and accusing Handel of “promoting teenage homosexuality” when she backed funding for an LGBT group on the Fulton County commission in 2006.
Her camp roundly dismissed it as a cheap shot by a flailing candidate.
Democrats are sitting back and hoping this is the same movie they’ve seen before: brutal primary wars that spell GOP disaster, much like 2010 and 2012. Nunn, a political novice whose father is the former Sen. Sam Nunn, is skating to her party’s nomination pretty much unscathed.
“I think the [Republican] primary has become a race to the extremes,” Nunn said in an interview in Atlanta.
Republicans, certainly, recognize the risks. Addressing a group of police officers at the Gordon County sheriff’s office in Calhoun, Ga., the 59-year-old Kingston said: “How many of y’all have seen that the conservative family might be a little bit divided right now? … And how many of y’all know, divided we fall?”
“Amen!” a man yelled out.
The Perdue pile-on
Many Republicans view Perdue as the ideal type of candidate for the GOP. He’s a telegenic businessman who can boast of creating jobs and turning around Fortune 500 companies. He lacks the baggage of a voting record and can pump millions of his own cash into his campaign. Plus he has a famous last name — his cousin is former two-term Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who left office only three years ago.
David Perdue barnstorms the state in a blue RV bearing his slogan, “The Outsider,” arguing to voters it’s time to send a nonpolitician to Washington.
At his campaign events, a volunteer is designated to blast music from his mobile phone whenever there’s a video tracker nearby, to prevent an opponent from catching Perdue in an unscripted moment with voters. But that can only do so much: In recent weeks Perdue’s unscripted moments have allowed his GOP critics to argue he’s not a true Republican.
Speaking to the Macon Telegraph editorial board, Perdue was asked whether raising revenue or cutting spending is the best way to slice the deficit. “Both,” he interjected. His opponents seized on the comment and claimed he was endorsing a tax increase. (He later said it was a reference to increasing revenue through economic growth, not tax increases, which he’s signed a pledge to oppose as a senator.)
Perdue, 64, says that as one of a handful of senators with business experience, he would be able to break perpetual gridlock over legislation to stem the budget deficit and bolster economic growth. But every time Perdue offers a whiff of compromise, he gets pounded by his opponents, so it’s unclear exactly where he’d bend. In the interview, he doubted the science of climate change and said he wouldn’t bother to fix Obamacare, saying the whole law needs to be scrapped. He called talk of raising the minimum wage “backward thinking.”
“There’s very little difference between these five candidates, honestly,” Perdue said, referring to their ideology.
To fight back against charges of “elitism,” Perdue — whose minimum net worth is estimated at $11.9 million, and who has pumped $2.7 million of his own cash into the race so far, with more likely to come if he makes the runoff — points out how his parents were both public schoolteachers and says he earned his money by being a risk-taker in business.
But his rivals are trying to undermine that very record in the corporate world. Kingston accuses Perdue of “bankrupting” a company in the early 2000s, a reference to a North Carolina-based textile firm, Pillowtex, which laid off nearly 8,000 workers soon after he stepped aside as CEO. He disputes Perdue’s central selling point that he helped turn around Dollar General, saying he “didn’t do a very good job.” And he says Democrats will pound Perdue for his work with Haggar Clothing Co. that cut jobs in Texas and outsourced them in the late 1990s.
“I think it’s very important to have a nominee who has been fully vetted,” Kingston said to about 30 voters at the home of Ronald Reagan’s former Georgia campaign chairman, nestled in the woods of Ellijay. “We got some folks in this race that I think the Democrats would just eat alive in the general election.”
Perdue accuses Kingston of spewing “lies” about his business record like a typical politician. He says he was brought on board at Pillowtex as it was going into bankruptcy proceedings, decimated as manufacturing sectors were struggling nationwide. As for Haggar, he says free trade agreements endorsed by Congress forced companies like it to move jobs offshore to compete.
“There’s a little desperation,” Perdue said of Kingston.
Handel vs. ‘good old boys’
A few weeks ago, Handel was seen as fading. Then Perdue dismissed her as “the high school graduate in this race.” The condescending comment — Perdue now says he “overreached” — went viral. And Handel has used it to reinvigorate her campaign.
“There are some who may think I’m not smart enough,” she told a gathering of supporters at a Flying Biscuit restaurant in her hometown of Roswell. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to overcome long odds.”
Handel, who left home at the age of 17 from an abusive family, has made her mark in Georgia as a scrappy campaigner who’s unafraid of controversy. During the 2010 gubernatorial primary, she vowed repeatedly to clean up the “good old boy” network in Georgia politics and accused her opponents of ethical improprieties. She finished first in the primary, then barely lost to Nathan Deal in a bitter runoff that is still resonating today.
Several GOP sources said that Deal allies have quietly moved to shut down the money spigot to Handel, which helps account for the meager $337,000 in her campaign account. Moreover, the network of Sonny Perdue donors who helped Handel in the 2010 governor’s run are now firmly on David Perdue’s side. A Deal spokeswoman and Handel both downplayed the past disputes, but others say the ill will still lingers.
If Handel wins the nomination, her critics say she’ll have a hard time uniting the party given her scorched-earth campaigning.
“The anti-Handel people aren’t going to come out and support Nunn, but they are probably not going to send [Handel] any more money,” said Eric Johnson, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial primary against Handel and now backs Kingston. “They are going to let the outside forces run the race, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Handel, 52, insists she’s an “unwavering conservative fighter” rather than a “go along to get along” Republican like Kingston or Perdue. She claims she would take that same battle to the Senate in the mold of Ted Cruz, arguing in an interview that it’s time for Mitch McConnell to go and that there should be “new leadership” atop the Senate GOP Conference.
But while Handel is running like a Palin-style conservative, her critics say she was groomed by the party establishment — having once worked for Sonny Perdue — and took a sharp turn to the right after falling in the governor’s race. Her profile grew in 2012 when, as a senior executive for Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure foundation, she tried to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
But her opponents are quick to note that she supported a contract for the organization seven years earlier when serving on the county commission, around the same time as she backed funding for the gay rights organization at the heart of the Gingrey attack.
Handel dismisses the criticism, noting her staunch social conservative stands, like opposing federal benefits for gay and lesbian domestic partners. In the interview, she wouldn’t say whether she believes homosexuality is a choice.
“I’m not going to get into the science,” she said, “about any of that.”