Business Republicans want to keep winning. They are looking at you, Jack Kingston.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News, Steve Bisson)

The business wing of the Republican Party faces its next big midterm test on Tuesday in Georgia's GOP runoff election for U.S. Senate, which pits business-backed Rep. Jack Kingston against David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General.

The Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group in the country, has spent more than $2.3 million for Kingston. The big investment is the organization's latest attempt to shepherd a preferred Republican candidate to victory in a contested primary -- something it has done successfully in several high-profile contests this year.

"To me, Georgia is perfect reflection of what we are trying to accomplish, which is to elect candidates who have the ability to win but also have the courage to govern," said Rob Engstrom, the Chamber's political director.

The race in Georgia, which polls show is close, will culminate two weeks ahead of another big test for the Chamber in Michigan. U.S. House primaries there will demonstrate whether the group can dislodge unfriendly Republicans from office for the first time this year. So far, it has served as an effective firewall for incumbents and a strong booster for open seat contenders. The group is backing primary challengers to Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.).

The runoff between Kingston and Perdue is the result of neither candidate winning a majority in the May 21 primary. Perdue led the way with 31 percent of the vote. Kingston finished second with 26 percent.

The outcome was seen as a victory for Republicans hoping to hold the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). Republicans fretted for months that Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, far-right Republicans who have the tendency to stir controversy, could imperil GOP chances in a crucial cog in the battle for the Senate. Democrats have recruited Michelle Nunn, a strong fundraiser who polls show is holding her own against the GOP.

Georgia is one of Democrats' two best pickup opportunities this cycle, the other being Kentucky. Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to win the Senate majority. A victory in either state by Democrats would dramatically up the GOP's degree of difficulty.

The tea-party-versus-establishment divide that has defined many other Senate primaries is nowhere to be found in the Perdue-Kingston race. Tea party groups have mostly been absent. Instead, the showdown has pitted the establishment-backed Kingston against the outsider Perdue, who is the cousin of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R).

Perdue has not only feuded with Kingston, but with the Chamber as well. In one ad, his campaign accuses of the Chamber of being "pro-amnesty" and links the group to Kingston. The Chamber supported the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year, which includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The only one-on-one debate was very contentious and grew deeply personal. Kingston suggested that Perdue's wealth and choice to "live in a gated community" prevents him from connecting with interests of ordinary Georgians. Perdue said he is "not going to apologize" for his professional success.

The TV ad war has also been personal. Perdue's campaign has cast Kingston as a "liberal" spender and D.C. insider, pitching himself as the fresh-voiced alternative from outside politics. Kingston ran an ad with a wooden mock-up of Perdue, concluding that his opponent is "just not the real thing." The commercial argued Perdue's rhetoric does not square with his record on immigration and education.

Kingston, a longtime appropriator, has not shied away from his experience in Washington or politics. He's lined up support from former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and even a couple of Republicans who lost to him in the primary.

"Kingston has done a really good job of lining up pretty much the entire political establishment in Georgia," said Joel McElhannon, a GOP strategist.

The congressman is touting himself as a voice of a reason at a time when many on the right want to wage war on the moderate elements of the GOP.

“We have got to win the Senate back, and we can’t do it with rhetoric. We have got to do it with a plan,” Kingston said before the primary election.

The Chamber has been on a hot streak in primaries where it has backed moderate Republicans like Kingston. In Mississippi, the group backed Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in his victory over tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel. In Idaho's 2nd district, it helped protect Rep. Mike Simpson (R) against a challenger supported by the anti-tax Club for Growth.

On the heels of the government shutdown last year, the group spent big to help elect now-Rep. Bradley Byrne (R) over far-right conservative Dean Young in Alabama's 1st district special election. Byrne worried out loud about the consequences of shutting down the government. Young cheered the shutdown.

The Chamber has been the biggest spender in the Georgia primary, according to a Center for Responsive Politics tally, dishing out about $2.34 million. A super PAC called Citizens for a Working America has spent more than $2 million helping Perdue and attacking Kingston. Perdue has tapped his personal wealth to fund his campaign.

The limited public polling on the Georgia runoff shows Kingston leading by single-digits. The winner will quickly turn his attention to Nunn, the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn (D) and the former head of the Points of Light Foundation.

Nunn has been one of Democrats' breakout stars and one the party's best fundraisers. She has benefited from the lengthy Republican nominating process that has spared the GOP's full attention so far.

But Republican strategists are confident they can regroup for the fall after Tuesday. They say they like their chances in a state that leans Republicans.

"I think everybody going to get back on the team in the general election," said McElhannon, the Republican strategist.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.



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Sean Sullivan · July 21, 2014

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