Georgia GOP Senate Runoff Pits D.C. 'Outsider' Against Longtime Congressman

We’re down to the wire in the Georgia GOP runoff election for the Senate race, but it isn’t clear who will come out on top. A recent WPA Opinion Research poll placed the competitors neck and neck at 44-45 percent. The internal poll, pushed into the public eye by the David Perdue camp, put their candidate out in front – but numbers that close only indicate that the race is heating up.

The runoff is set for July 22. The winner will go up against Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn in the closely watched general election this fall as Republicans try to keep the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). But who will come out on top is really more a question of who won’t drop the ball between now and then.

Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General and first cousin to former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, emphasizes his business prowess and “outsider” status to politics. Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) is a longtime politician who has served in the House of Representatives since 1993.

It’s no small wonder that one of Perdue’s big talking points is against careerist politicians and for term limits.

Perdue with the upper hand?

Not exactly. The original primary votes left Perdue with a slight lead, but for the most part polls have put Kingston ahead in the double-digits ever since. The recent close polls are a clear indicator that July 22 is anybody’s game.

Perdue’s insistence on being seen as the “outsider” – in a time where careerist politicians are getting a particularly bad reputation – served him well in the primary at first. Yet that initial spark has seemed to fade quickly in the runoff. He trails Kingston in both campaign funds and endorsements.

In fact, the two seem caught up in a game of “Who’s More Conservative?” The primary lacked this push to the far right – likely because there were so many candidates and because none could go farther right than the Tea Party-backed candidate Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). But why pick up the far-right flag now? Each criticizes the other as being “too liberal” for Georgia, a statement that may well come back to haunt the winner in the general election against Nunn.

Kingston isn’t exactly in the clear, either. His campaign hit a snag last month when top contributors to Kingston’s campaign were linked to a felon. One Atlanta attorney even claims Kingston knew about the source, though Kingston staunchly denies the assertion.

Kingston on the offensive

When it comes down to the facts, though, Kingston’s campaign has been smoother – likely due to experience. Perdue spent the past year dogging his opponents, only to have several of them come back to endorse Kingston in the runoff, like former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel.

In a recent television ad, Kingston claimed Perdue would raise taxes – something PolitiFact Georgia rated as half true. It’s quite the damaging dig to Perdue, who claims to be the “true conservative” choice. Perdue immediately denounced the assertion as “misleading” in an interview on former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s radio talk show.

But the two candidates are running on unsurprisingly similar platforms. Both support the Fair Tax – a move that would replace the current complex income tax system with an across-the-board 23 percent sales tax on all new goods and services. Both are staunch pro-lifers and advocates for defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Both will push to clear the national debt and to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

At the end of the day, Republican voters will have to choose between two close candidates – a career politician who has solid experience in Washington, D.C., or a successful businessman who’s coming fresh to the scene.

Runoff games and the general election

But the real question coming to light is this: With an open primary, will Democrats push the lesser of two evils out of the way?

Last month, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) won a tricky runoff game against his opponent, Tea Party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Instead of only campaigning to bring out his loyal voters, Cochran also reached across party lines to convince African-American Democrats to vote for him against McDaniel.

In an open election, anyone can vote for either party in the primary. What’s more, those who didn’t vote in the original primary can still vote for either party in the case of a runoff. McDaniel alleges that several thousand votes will be discovered illegal upon review – as those who voted Democrat in the original primary cannot vote in the Republican runoff. But for now the tactic seems to have worked.

While we haven’t seen this kind of campaigning in Georgia, there’s nothing against Democratic voters coming out anyway. Nor is there anything saying many voters will come out at all. Midterm elections garner significantly less turnout than years with a presidential election, and primaries glean fewer voters than that. But a primary runoff in a midterm year? It doesn’t seem likely that many will show up beyond the core constituents.

But what should trouble Republicans about this open primary is that Democrats might cross party lines legally and vote for the candidate they feel will fare poorest against their own in the general election. Could this have been why Perdue held more votes in the primary but came up short in most of the polls taken since?

This year could be different

For the most part, Georgia has been a tried and true conservative state. Even recent Democrats to hold office, like former governor and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, have held “Southern Democrat” status. But there’s also a very tight voting history between Republicans and Democrats in Georgia. With Nunn up to bat this year, the general election could give the GOP candidate a real run for his money.

Still, Republicans on average are more enthusiastic to vote this year, which makes sense as Republicans are counting on states like Georgia to help turn the tide in the Senate.

Not over till it’s over

The final debate between the two candidates was particularly nasty and pointed. Perdue brought up the campaign funds scandal that shook the Kingston camp last month – of which Kingston again denied knowledge. Perdue further glorified the notion of his own “outsider” status.

“You live inside a gate inside a gated community with a gate on your house.” Kingston accused Perdue. “I think being a public servant is being public and knowing how to serve.”

“The decision in this race is very simple.” Perdue retorted. “If you like what is going on in Washington, then vote for my opponent."

The GOP race toward the general election has been a particularly long one, running a full 90 days – much longer than previous Georgia runoffs. The polls have tipped both ways, and the mudslinging has been constant. With less than a week before Election Day, the candidates have little time left to pull ahead.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)