Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue are neck-and-neck in Tuesday's runoff contest for the Republican Senate nomination in Georgia. With over 91% of precincts counted, Perdue held a lead of just over 6,000 votes. The two have switched places throughout the vote count.
The winner will face a difficult opponent in Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.
A Perdue victory would be a minor upset after lagging in most polls of the race. A WSB-TV survey last week put Kingston ahead of Perdue by a 48-41 margin among likely Republican voters. Nunn led both in the general election — Kingston by 8 and Perdue by 5 — and she has amassed an impressive war chest while her Republican rivals have spent their resources tearing each other down with negative ads.
Nunn was able to avoid any serious Democratic competition, but Kingston, a Republican, told MSNBC on Tuesday that the combative GOP primary would not give her the upper hand in the general election.
“I think we're going to disappoint her if that’s what she thinks, because tonight, regardless of who has the most votes, we will be behind the nominee,” Kingston said.
Kingston and Perdue are each solidly conservative, if relatively establishment, candidates. The two led a close five-way primary in May that included former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA). Some Republican strategists were afraid the ultra-conservative Broun or gaffe-prone Gingrey, a physician who recently spread phony rumors that Central American migrants were carrying Ebola, might have given Nunn a decisive edge. But Perdue and Kingston are considered stronger campaigners.
Perdue, the cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue, won the initial primary with a memorable series of ads positioning himself as an outsider and depicting his veteran politician opponents as crying infants. But Kingston, who has touted his 20 years of experience representing the Savannah area in Congress, has held a modest lead in polls throughout the runoff race. Gingrey and Handel, as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have endorsed him.
Perdue has tried to paint Kingston as a Washington insider in debates while Kingston has tried to undermine Perdue’s business career by highlighting outsourcing and layoffs at some of his past companies.
Despite Perdue’s experience running successful companies like Dollar General, the Chamber of Commerce is backing Kingston in the race. Perdue has tried to turn the Chamber endorsement to his advantage by tying Kingston to some of its less conservative-friendly positions. In a recent ad, he argued that the group’s support for immigration reform means “Kingston’s pro-amnesty vote is bought and paid for.” Kingston dismissed the claim when speaking with msnbc on Tuesday and said he opposes giving legal status to undocumented immigrants.
Perdue told voters earlier this month that he stormed out of a meeting with Chamber representatives early in the race when they demanded he pledge full support for their priorities.
“I walked out of a 60-minute interview in about 10 minutes,” Perdue said. “There’s a rumor going around that I lost my temper. I can confirm for you today that that is true.”
One concern for Republicans is that the lines of attack the two candidates have used against each other are both points that Nunn could pick up and use in the general election. Should Perdue win, Nunn will likely target his business record and wealth in much the same way Kingston did. Should Kingston win, Nunn – who has not held elected office — will position herself as the outsider running against a career politician.
Georgia Republicans also are voting in three House runoff elections on Tuesday to replace the departing Kingston, Gingrey, and Broun.
Broun was known as one of the most conservative members of Congress, famously denouncing evolution and Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” His successor looks like he'll carry on that legacy. Ultra-conservative pastor Jody Hice, with Broun's backing, won the nomination for the 10th district seat over businessman Mike Collins on Tuesday night. Hice gained notoriety for arguing that Islam “does not deserve First Amendment protection” in a 2012 book and denouncing homosexuality in fiery terms.
In Gingrey’s 11th district, former Republican Congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr is running to return to the House against State Senator Barry Loudermilk, who is backed by the conservative Club For Growth. And in Kingston’s 1st district, surgeon Bob Johnson, who is also supported by Club For Growth, is facing off against State Senator Buddy Carter.