CANTON, Ga. — Nowhere in the United States did the tea party seem better poised for victory than in Georgia’s open Senate race. The Peach State, along with South Carolina, has anchored the movement for the past five years, providing Congress with four of the 25 most conservative voting records.
Yet on a recent evening, Rep. Jack Kingston (R) strode across the stage at Cagle’s Family Farm with the surprising air of a front-runner. He is exactly the kind of candidate the tea party movement most reviled: a 22-year member of Congress with a history of doling out federal dollars.
In this crowded Republican primary, however, Kingston has seemingly found a path toward the top and is poised to advance beyond the May 20 primary to what is likely to be a two-candidate runoff in July. His most conservative challengers, meanwhile, have struggled to catch on.
The Savannah congressman’s position in this Senate race is emblematic of the tea party’s pains nationwide. On Tuesday, the movement floundered in North Carolina, where the establishment choice, Thom Tillis, cruised to the nomination over underfunded conservatives. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has eviscerated his tea party challenger ahead of the May 20 primary.
The movement’s Washington-based advocates, disappointed in the quality of conservative candidates, have stayed on the sidelines or have latched on to people who don’t fit neatly into their anti-establishment mold.
Kingston, 59, has not run from his experience or his time in Washington. Instead, he has trumpeted them and has tried to make the warfare inside the GOP an issue. At the candidate forum in this northern exurb of Atlanta, Kingston asked the crowd of about 300: “How many of you think the conservative family is divided? And how many of you know divided we fall?” Most people raised their hands. He spent the next two minutes outlining his career in the House, distancing himself from the loudest voices on the right.
“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,” he said.
Kingston and businessman David Perdue — a multimillionaire cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue — have been atop most polls and have raised more money than their most conservative rivals, creating the possibility that the July 22 runoff will leave conservatives without a candidate. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two candidates will proceed to the runoff.
A victory by Kingston or Perdue would make it harder for Democrats to take over the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R). Michelle Nunn, a fundraising dynamo from her years running a large charity organization, has been one of the best Democratic recruits this season. To help her win, Democrats had hoped that Republicans would nominate one of the more conservative candidates in the race — someone such as Rep. Paul C. Broun, a hard-right firebrand who might struggle among centrist suburban voters.
With no candidate expected to be close to 50 percent in the May 20 ballot, the fight is to advance to the runoff. This means that Broun and two other more natural conservatives — Karen Handel, a former secretary of state running as a Sarah Palin acolyte, and Rep. Phil Gingrey — have a chance if they can somehow make it into the top two. Handel is the only one of the trio to show momentum in recent weeks, but many party strategists question whether her underfunded campaign can break through in the closing days.
This has left some staunch conservatives in Georgia scratching their heads.
“Kingston, I think, is being pushed by the establishment Republicans, and they’re the ones who got us in trouble,” Roy Corbin, 55, a real estate appraiser from nearby Kennesaw, said after the Cherokee County Farm Bureau’s forum. He supports Broun but fears the race is slipping from conservatives, particularly after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston. “When I start seeing all the establishment lining up behind him, it makes me wonder if the fix is in,” he said.
In normal political times, Kingston would have been expected to be a top contender for an open Senate seat. He has spent decades on the House Appropriations Committee, spreading tens of millions of dollars worth of earmarks around the state. He was once a member of the House GOP leadership team and he is a prodigious fundraiser with connections both on Washington’s K Street and in the corporate towers of Atlanta.
These are not always helpful attributes for a Republican in the tea party era. In 2010 and 2012, insurgent candidates defeated establishment favorites in many primaries — although many lost in the general election.
Those tough defeats made some Washington Republicans particularly fearful of Broun’s candidacy, and to a lesser extent, Gingrey’s. Broun is prone to fiery speeches invoking the Founding Fathers and applying those 1789 principles to issues 225 years later.
“My supporters are very dedicated because I’m the ‘We the People’ candidate,” Broun said in an interview before the farm forum.
After Republican Todd Akin, who was the party’s 2012 Senate nominee in Missouri, ignited a firestorm by telling a TV interviewer that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” Gingrey defended the science behind Akin’s comments. Gingrey, who comes from suburban Atlanta’s social conservative circles, is an OB-GYN who has delivered more than 5,000 babies.
While Broun’s campaign has run out of cash, Gingrey had a $2 million stockpile of money. On Wednesday, he released an ad that mocks Perdue. “You deserve better than politics as usual,” he says while showing a clip of a Perdue ad that mocks the other challengers.
Handel appears to have the best chance of sneaking into the runoff, particularly if Gingrey focuses on bringing down Perdue. Handel narrowly lost the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010, and as the only woman in the race, it makes her a dangerous candidate if she can get into the runoff.
“We know what the Democrats’ playbook is going to be. It’s going to be war on women and income inequality,” she told the farmers, pausing for effect. “Well, I would like to see Michelle Nunn try to drop the war on women on me.”
Perdue recently slipped up by dismissing Handel for not having a college degree and she has attacked the millionaire as an elitist. He has run a campaign heavily based on TV advertising, not public appearances. Farm officials said he declined an invitation to their forum.
All these problems have left Kingston in an improbably strong position. On a cool Tuesday night, nearly 300 miles from home, Kingston arrived in his 1992 Roadmaster station wagon, his symbolic declaration that he hasn’t changed since he first arrived in Washington. He tells voters that his experience means he can run a smart campaign and won’t mess up like Akin, an indirect shot at Broun and Gingrey.
“The advantage of having some experience is you’re smarter than that. You gotta be pretty consistent,” Kingston said.