Georgia Senate race: 'Safe' runoff ahead for GOP; Dems choose Nunn

Political newcomer David Perdue was top vote-getter in Tuesday's GOP primary for the US Senate seat in Georgia. Neither he nor Rep. Jack Kingston, who also advances to the July 22 runoff, is an insurgent Republican.

(L.-r.) David Goldman/AP, John Bazemore/AP
Georgia Republican Senate candidates, David Perdue (l.) and Jack Kingston speak to supporters at separate primary election night parties, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Atlanta.

The GOP Senate primary in Georgia proceeded according to plan Tuesday night, at least if you are an "establishment" Republican like longtime US Rep. Jack Kingston or millionaire corporate leader David Perdue.

With neither of those two winning a majority in a seven-person race, the duo will meet in a July 22 runoff to determine which one will face Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former three-term US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, in November's general election. She cruised to victory in the Democratic primary.

Holding onto the Georgia Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) is a cornerstone of the GOP’s Election 2014 strategy: Take control of the Senate by nominating establishment Republicans whom businesses and individual donors can rally behind in November.

Judging by the establishment’s trouncing of anti-establishment challengers Tuesday in Georgia, Kentucky, and elsewhere, the gambit is paying off, with GOP-affiliated groups and candidates spending some $10 million total on the Georgia Senate contest so far.

By advancing two candidates in Georgia who are both capable of fending off a big-name Democratic challenger, political experts say, Republicans have probably boosted their chances of seizing control of both congressional chambers.

In Georgia, as elsewhere on Tuesday, Republican candidates and donors seemed to organize themselves to better answer the tea party roar heard in 2010 and 2012. Those years infused the GOP with new energy after the election of President Obama had left the party adrift, but a propensity to nominate flawed candidates in the primaries likely cost the Republican Party a golden chance in 2012 to snag control of the Senate and recalibrate the politics of Mr. Obama’s second term.

Even so, the conservative movement’s fingerprints were all over the victory map in Georgia, where Mr. Perdue, a former Reebok CEO, and Mr. Kingston took hardline, small-government views on topics such as the Common Core education standards, climate change, teen sex education, and the health-care law known as Obamacare.

“The ‘establishment’ candidates may have won – but they did so by becoming increasingly conservative,” writes Ben Jacobs in the Daily Beast

House Speaker John Boehner said the anti-GOP-establishment fury that surfaced after Obama’s election in 2008 and the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street has been quelled by being absorbed into a soul-searching Republican Party. “Sometimes there’s not that big a difference between what you all call tea party and your average conservative Republican,” Mr. Boehner said Monday.

Other takeaways quickly emerged Tuesday night in Georgia.

• Last names mattered for candidates such as Perdue, whose campaign tapped the extensive Rolodex of his cousin, former two-term Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. On the Democratic side, Ms. Nunn glided to victory in part on the familiarity of her last name.

• It’s not all about the tried and true. The biggest vote-getter in Georgia was Perdue, who has never held public office and who used his own considerable wealth to help him advance. As he said Tuesday night, “We’ve retired three career politicians – we’ve got one more to go” – a not-too-subtle jab at Mr. Kingston, an 11-term congressman. Nunn is also a political first-timer.

• Business interests are back as a Republican touchpoint. The US Chamber of Commerce emerged as a major force in the Georgia GOP primary; its ad buys on behalf of Kingston helped him beat back a strong challenge from former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

The chamber is set to spend $4 million on the Georgia Senate race alone, and probably at least $35 million nationally to help elect Republicans in 2014.

Meanwhile, major national groups associated with the tea party in recent campaign cycles – including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks – stayed out of the Georgia Senate race entirely.

The aim of America’s business community is “to send a chilling message [to the tea party] as well as bolster Republicans who have been loyal to House Speaker John Boehner and taken tough votes, such as those to raise the federal debt ceiling,” write John McCormick and Greg Giroux, for Bloomberg News.

Here in Georgia, Perdue and Kingston now face a nine-week campaign to the July runoff. That process could fine-tune their campaign messages, but it could also yield fodder for Nunn to use in campaign ads for the general election, if the two Republicans come off as too far right for moderate voters.

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