Meet The Front-Runners In The Crowded GOP Senate Primary

May 14, 2014
Originally published on May 15, 2014 2:48 pm

Seven Republicans are competing for the nomination to Georgia's open Senate seat. All are conservative, but the primary on May 20 will be a test of how well the Tea Party is doing. At least three of the candidates carry the Tea Party mantle. Some party leaders worry that if one of the more extreme conservatives gets the nomination, it could clear the way for a win by a moderate Democrat in the general election.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. In Georgia, several well-known Republicans are facing off this month in a contest for the Senate nomination. The race features three sitting members of Congress, a well-funded businessman and Georgia's former secretary of state. They're all vying for the chance to fill a seat left vacant by retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss.

The top candidates are all conservatives. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, that's boiled the contest down to one issue: Who has the best shot at keeping the seat in Republican hands?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Early voting is already underway in Georgia's Senate primary. On the Democratic side, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of popular former Senator Sam Nunn, is considered a lock. But on the Republican side, it's a dogfight. At Jittery Joe's coffeehouse in Macon recently, a small crowd of supporters came out to meet with Jack Kingston. He's been in Congress now for more than 20 years, representing the area near Savannah in southeast Georgia. Kingston has some history here in Macon. He helped fans of the Allman Brothers renovate the house band members lived in during their heyday.

REPRESENTATIVE JACK KINGSTON: The thing about the Allman Brothers is they sang our lives. The blue sky that they sang about, we played under. The river that they talked about, that's where we went tubing or fishing or swimming.

ALLEN: Kingston's in Macon stumping for votes in a crowded field against some other prominent Republican candidates. There are two other members of Congress: Phil Gingrey and Paul Brown. Both are better known nationally than Kingston, in part because both are identified with the Tea Party. Kingston is much more part of the Republican establishment. He's an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee, helping decide how Congress spends federal dollars. He's also a conservative.

KINGSTON: I have an A-plus rating with the NRA, 96 percent with American Conservative Union, and I think that Republican primary voters are looking for people who have solid conservative credentials, which I have.

ALLEN: With so many candidates in the race, it's expected to go to a runoff, with the top two finishers facing off in July. Most polls show Kingston in second place in the race, behind frontrunner David Perdue.

DAVID PERDUE: Hey y'all, good to see y'all.

ALLEN: Perdue is a businessman, the former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General. Although he's new to politics, his name is not. His cousin is former Governor Sonny Perdue, who's still popular in Georgia, especially here. It's a campaign lunch in Perry, Sonny Perdue's hometown, giving him a chance to compare his cousin to the local pulled-pork barbecue that's being served.

SONNY PERDUE: David Perdue is like White Diamond barbecue. It's good. It's solid. It's going to be there, and it's the same all the time.

ALLEN: The former governor says the main advice he's given his cousin is to just be himself. When he describes himself to voters, David Perdue has one word he uses repeatedly.

PERDUE: I'm an outsider. And in the fall, we're going to likely go up against another outsider.

ALLEN: He's talking about Democrat Michelle Nunn, who like Perdue has never before run for office but has a name that in Georgia is an important political asset. Several polls show her beating everyone in the Republican field except Perdue. That's the pitch Perdue makes to voters, that he's the one guy in the field who can beat Nunn.

PERDUE: And you won't hear me say anything bad about that family. I love them. I know them very well. But they can't defend the record of the last five years.

ALLEN: Perdue is the best funded candidate, putting a couple million dollars of his own money into the race. But he's made missteps. In a debate, he questioned the qualifications of the only woman in the race, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, because she never attended college. Handel's been endorsed by Sarah Palin. Most polls show her in third place in the race, struggling to make the runoff. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say that GOP Senate candidate Karen Handel never attended college. Actually, she did attend some college but never graduated.]

In a recent debate, she tried to make up ground by striking back at frontrunner David Perdue.

KAREN HANDEL: We have an outside who thinks that people without a college degree or who haven't lived overseas somehow aren't smart enough to know what's going on in Washington. Well, I think we're all smart enough to know what needs to be done up there. We need to cut spending and get this economy going again.

ALLEN: Here in Georgia, as in other Republican primary races, the influence of the Tea Party has been muted. It's the mainstream candidates, in this case businessman David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston, who are doing best. At a Kingston event, former Air Force pilot Bob Comlow(ph) says he could probably support any of the Republicans in the race. He's active with the Tea Party but says this isn't the time for Tea Party rhetoric or their candidates.

BOB COMLOW: But I'm glad they're out there, the Tea Party. I'm glad they're out there, especially going into this race. Being an ex-pilot, we call it throttle back. We just need to throttle back a little of the Tea Party's emphasis.

ALLEN: With a strong Democrat on the ballot, Comlow and others believe the key to winning in the fall is nominating a candidate who can appeal not just to Republicans but also to independent voters. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.