Runoff Day in Georgia

It’s a rainy, humid runoff election day in Georgia, being held an unusual nine weeks after the primary, which has confused some voters. The mid-summer Vacation timing, the weather, the nasty tone of the marquee Senate contest, and the absence of much happening on the Democratic side, have combined to encourage projections of a very low turnout–perhaps in the single digits percentage-wise (which means percentage of total registered voters, since there’s no party registration here).

Low turnout in a Republican primary, especially in the Deep South, usually means Wingnut Paradise. If so, the table is set for a bad night for the Republican Establishment, with there being a reasonably clear Movement Conservative favorite in the Senate and three House runoffs. But local factors and the simple reality that pretty much every Republican candidate here would have been considered wild and crazy twenty years ago make predictions difficult.

In this post I’ll focus on the Senate runoff and deal with the House races later today.

The Senate runoff offers an interesting microcosm of the superficiality of the national narrative of a “pragmatic” and even “moderate” Republican Establishment seeking to crush the Tea Party once and for all. In the original field, U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, two of the zanier hard-core conservative Republican House members, were thought to be struggling for the all-important mantle of Most Conservative candidate. Both led some early polls. A third candidate who decided to go all out for the ideological vote was former Secretary of State Karen Handel, whose campaign was handicapped by the fact that her major patron, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, was backing his own cousin, David, a career corporate manager and first-time candidate.

Perdue ran a classic Romney-esque “outsider businessman” campaign, which he largely funded from his own resources. He took conventionally conservative issue positions but mostly talked about his business resume. A fifth candidate, ten-term House incumbent and appropriator Jack Kingston, enjoyed a rare regional base (he represents the coastal 1st District, whose citizens often feel left out of Atlanta-centric Georgia politics) and the ability to raise big money from lobbyists, but seemed almost a parody of the kind of pol the Tea Party had arisen to smite.

In the end, Broun and Handel were crippled by money shortages; Gingrey campaigned like a wino (never did figure out how he spent his large budget; seemed to be on very slick mailers); and Perdue and Kingston cruised to the two runoff spots, with 31% and 26% of the vote respectively. But Kingston had managed an unlikely ideological makeover during the primary. He used a stupid National Journal rating to proclaim himself “the most conservative House member” in the field; ran ads attacking The Welfare and describing himself as a good-old-boy skinflint. Most interestingly, Kingston also attacked Common Core (calling it “Obamacare for education”), supposedly a huge priority for his major financial backer the U.S, Chamber of Commerce (this tells you something about the Chamber’s actual priorities).

In any event, when Kingston edged Handel for a runoff spot, she instantly endorsed him, as did Gingrey, and his campaign has had something of the “Viva! Ole!” atmosphere of a real wingnut crusade. He immediately surged into a lead in the polls, and until the last week or two, seemed a lock.

Perdue, however, has dipped back into his own wallet, and made his own effort to outflank Kingston on the right, mainly via an ad tying his opponent to the Chamber’s support for “amnesty” (i.e., the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill), a very dirty word in GA Republican circles. Coincidentally or not, the last couple of polls have shown a tightening race, and Kingston himself seems to be running a bit scared.

Geography is the big imponderable. On primary night Kingston Country didn’t much extend beyond his First District, where he got 75% of the vote with elevated turnout. Perdue, on the other hand, has no real base, unless it’s low-information voters who watch a lot of television–not the most likely runoff participants. Tonight if Kingston starts winning metro Atlanta counties (and that’s where he spent most of his runoff ad money), he’s likely going to win.

But no matter who wins, the real winner is True Conservatism, the golden calf all five GOP candidates in the original field have worshiped with the fervor of a religious order, filling the air with supplications to its power and glory each and every day. And that’s why even though the “Establishment” supposedly vanquished the “Tea Party” in this race, you’d never know it from how the remaining candidates sound, and that’s why Democrat Michelle Nunn has a fighting chance in November.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.