ATLANTA — Three congressmen, a female ex-statewide official, a successful businessman, the nation’s only black GOP Senate candidate and a newcomer who argues Republicans must broaden their appeal on social issues to grow, together add up to a crowded primary and a range of choices for voters.
Adding to Republican voters’ challenge in picking a Senate nominee is the well-funded political scion expected to win the Democratic nomination. That means GOP stalwarts are not only selecting the person they’d like to see representing them in Washington but also the one with the best chance of winning in November and for re-election six years from now when demographic changes will favor a liberal challenger.
Polls recently made public show how fluid and unpredictable the race is since likely low turnout and a crowded ballot mean a difference of a relatively small number of votes will determine which two candidates get in the runoff and which stay home.
Independent polls have shown former corporate executive David Perdue in the lead followed closely by either Jack Kingston, a Savannah congressman, or Karen Handel, the former secretary of state who narrowly lost a runoff four years ago for the gubernatorial nomination. One public survey shows Handel now in second place while another shows Kingston. The congressman’s own poll shows him leading.
Rounding out the field are Paul Broun, an Athens congressman; Phil Gingrey, a Marietta congressman; Derrick Grayson, a transportation engineer who’s the only black Republican candidate running for the U.S. Senate; and Art Gardner, a patent attorney pushing for moderate social positions to attract independents to the party.
Since the candidates have similar views on most issues — with the exception of Gardner, the choice for voters is probably dependent on experience, personality and circumstance.
Perdue, the cousin of the state’s last governor, earned a reputation for turning around troubled companies as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, including several international operations during stints overseas. He argues it makes him a problem solver and a job creator.
“If you’re as outraged as I am by the size and scope of our government, and by the inexcusable, childish behavior exhibited in Washington right now then I hope you’ll give this outsider from Georgia a chance,” he says in his latest television ad. “Fixing big problems like this is what I’ve done all my life. It’s what I do.”
His Midas touch failed him in 2003 during a seven-month period at the helm of the struggling North Carolina textile firm Pillowtex. It wound up folding with 4,000 people losing their jobs and Perdue getting a large severance package when his ended, prompting opponents to attack him and warn that it will prevent him from attracting enough independents in November to win the general election.
Kingston boasts that the endorsements of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business prove he supports business-friendly policies. The Chamber is airing ads on his behalf, and he’s hoping to get a big bounce before May 20 with the removal of the final federal hurdle to expanding the job generator that is the Savannah harbor.
“I am the one who has been pushing for it all along,” he said.
Kingston has taken his own share of criticism, such as a super PAC’s ad that calls him a big spender and the “King of Earmarks” because of his longtime service on the House Appropriations Committee. But, as he notes, the National Journal rates his voting record as the most conservative of the three congressmen in the race.
Kingston’s ability to work across the aisle translates into effectiveness, especially in a hyper-partisan Washington, according to Rob Engstrom, the Chamber’s political director. All of the other GOP candidates sought the Chamber’s endorsement, but only Kingston came away with it.
Handel has some plum endorsements of her own, ranging from pro-life groups to conservative personalities Sarah Palin, Erick Erickson, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sue Everhart, the former chairwoman of the Georgia GOP. Her shoestring budget was supplemented by publicity over a public slight from Perdue about her dropping out of college.
“I’ve been a fighter my whole life. I left a troubled home at 17, beat the odds, worked my way up in the private sector, and as Georgia’s secretary of state, I implemented Georgia’s tough voter ID law,” she wrote in a recent fundraising letter to supporters.
Plus, she argues, no other candidate would be as effective a foil to Democrat Michelle Nunn, the likely nominee.
“I’d like to see her try to drop the ‘war on women’ bomb on me,” Handel says at Republican gatherings.
Handel’s assets have their flip sides, too. Where admirers see her personality as tenacious, detractors call it prickly. Where she won praise from abortion foes as an executive of the Susan G. Komen Foundation for ending grants to Planned Parenthood, others see ham-handedness that nearly wrecked a respected charity. Where she may say she can’t be bought, major donors have shied away because they see her as unreceptive and divisive.
Broun has even less support from big donors and the establishment wing of the party. While his personality is easygoing and genteel, his rhetoric strikes many as extreme. He’s called President Barack Obama a socialist who should be impeached and derided the Theory of Evolution as “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” And his voting record shows he’s often in a tiny minority opposing the leadership and causing Washington insiders to characterize him as too extreme to be effective.
But for tea party advocates fed up with compromise, Broun is their darling. He has the backing of some of the most conservative national groups dealing with national defense (Broun is a former Marine), spending-reduction and personal liberties.
“Since I came to Congress in 2007, I’ve been fighting to restore constitutionally limited government, and return the powers to the states and the people as the 10th Amendment says,” he said. “We must stop the current mentality that Republicans and Democrats alike have in Washington, where they’re governing over the people.”
The third congressman in the race is Gingrey, who like Broun is a physician and like Kingston was first a state legislator. He has focused on health policy since entering politics, and he became a leading opponent of the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare.
Gingrey has promised to get Obamacare repealed or to retire after one Senate term. Some GOP strategists worry that could give the seat to the Democrats.
“Obamacare is so harmful I voted to repeal or defund it over 40 times, but our efforts die in the Senate,” said Gingrey in one ad. “I’ll help repeal Obamacare in my first term or go home, because you deserve a senator who gets the job done or gets out of the way.”
Gardner and Grayson have livened up the series of debates the party has put on, but both suffer from a lack of resources. As political newcomers, they have neither the finances, the supporter network or the name recognition to draw the backing of many primary voters, according to veteran campaign operatives. As a result, polls show them languishing in the single digits and suggest they are unlikely to make it to the runoff.
The eventual GOP nominee will face Libertarian Nominee Amanda Swafford and most likely Democrat Michelle Nunn in this fall’s general election. The winner will have a six-year term in the Senate in the seat Saxby Chambliss is retiring from.


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