Bruising Georgia Republican primary: Will it fuel Democrats, or fire up GOP?

In their campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republicans have traded heavy blows that could be costly come fall. But Democrats still face an enthusiasm gap.

David Tulis/AP
Republican Senatorial candidates, from left to right, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, Ga., and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue greet each other after a debate at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio, May 11, 2014, in Atlanta.

Climate-change skepticism, questions about support for “teenage homosexuality,” and he-said-she-said exchanges over elitism and taxes have dominated a red-meat Republican primary here in Georgia, titillating Democrats who are quietly enjoying the show from the sidelines.

Given that the race is one of a dozen nationally that could dramatically shift the pendulum of power in Washington, it’s hardly surprising that this primary became bruising quickly, as a bevy of would-be senators lined up to replace the retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

The problem for the GOP is that it’s one of two Senate races that Democrats could conceivably win, which could effectively quash any chances of conservatives taking control of both chambers of Congress in the last two years of the Obama presidency.

Another gift to Michelle Nunn, the likely Democratic candidate: Given that the tight GOP primary race means a July runoff is likely, Republicans will keep hammering each other for several more months, providing fodder for the political ad-makers and national campaign operatives who are swooping in to bend the optics of the campaign. That means bare-knuckle exchanges – one ad for Rep. Phil Gingrey depicts frontrunner David Perdue as a sniveling toddler named Davey Perdue – that could help Democrats paint the GOP as too “extreme” come election day in November.

But with Georgia a solidly Republican state where a Democrat has to win 30 percent of the white vote, the passion on the GOP side may ultimately not hurt – and may help – their cause no matter which candidate ends up on the November ballot.

The problem for Democrats is that “Republicans are more enthusiastic, which doesn’t bode well for Democrats,” says Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “They have to get more enthused and … identify every potential voter.”

Republicans competing in the primary include Rep. Jack Kingston, Rep. Paul Broun, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Congressman Gingrey, and Mr. Perdue, the former Dollar General and Reebok CEO.

Thanks largely to larger coffers and bigger ad buys, Perdue leads in polls, with Mr. Kingston and Ms. Handel trailing. Handel nearly pulled off an upset in the 2010 governor’s election, in which she was narrowly edged by now-Gov. Nathan Deal.

The frontrunners, in a nutshell:

• Handel, known for her passionate ground game lieutenants, is an accomplished politician who fell only 3,000 votes short of being Georgia’s governor in 2010

• Kingston is a business-friendly Washington insider with an easy, electable manner

• Perdue is a wealthy businessman who pushes back at “elitism” charges by insisting he’s a “regular Georgian”

The two outwardly tea party candidates – Gingry and Representative Broun, both members of the House Tea Party Caucus, have shown limited appeal outside their middle Georgia base – but that hardly means the conservative insurgency has been quelled here.

In fact, all five candidates have scrambled toward hard-right positions on immigration and social issues – Handel, for instance, has been hammered by Gingrey for "promoting teen homosexuality" because she once voted as a Fulton County commissioner to support Youth Pride, an Atlanta-area youth center for gay kids. Candidates have also focused on global warming “alarmism.” Public perception of ObamaCare will also be a big factor in the race, analysts say.

“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,” writes columnist Patricia Murphy, in the Daily Beast.

Perhaps not surprisingly given public antipathy toward Washington politicians in general, the frontrunners of both parties’ nominations are political neophytes. Neither Ms. Nunn nor Mr. Perdue have ever held political office before, though they both have politically known last names. Nunn’s dad is iconic former Southern Sen. Sam Nunn, and Perdue’s first cousin is former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In a last push over the weekend, the Republican candidates sparred over taxes, and made a last bid for the party’s hardcore conservative voters: Handel was set to campaign Monday with Redstate blogger Erick Erickson and Perdue brought on former presidential candidate Herman Cain to rally voters.

Meanwhile, special interest groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to national doctor associations have poured millions into the race, most of which has gone to bare-knuckled TV attack ads. Outside donors are likely to write more and bigger checks as November looms.

The Chamber of Commerce has spent $4 million on ads already, as it lines up behind the veteran Kingston. Perdue has gotten a more than $1 million push from Citizens for a Working America PAC, which is run by longtime GOP operatives.

The seat has certainly drawn third-party money before. About $20 million was spent competing for the seat in 2008, when Chambliss sought reelection.

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