Georgia’s GOP Senate Candidates Are Racing Each Other to the Far Right

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 16 2014 8:04 PM

How Red Can You Get?

Georgia’s GOP Senate candidates are racing each other to the far right.

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“If we don’t win in November—or we win with another go-along-to-get-along, or an elitist establishment type—we haven’t accomplished a thing,” said Handel. “Who’s gonna take it to Michelle Nunn, y’all? We know we need to cut the spending. We know we need to get the economy going by cutting taxes and cutting regulation.”

After a short speech, Handel stuck around the diner to talk to explain why her story made her electable, and her rivals’ “elitism” would lead to doom.

“Look at the headlines that they’ve already generated,” she said. “Jack Kingston: Poor children should sweep the floor. Look at the narrative around David Perdue: His disdain for people who don’t have a college degree and haven’t been overseas, that they aren’t smart enough. Gingrey, Broun …” She paused and laughed. “Do I need to go into that?”

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She really didn’t. Later that day, more than 100 miles down the road, Perdue’s bus pulled into the parking lot of Jackson’s, a seafood restaurant just across the water from a coal plant that—as several patrons pointed out—was being shut down by the EPA. He worked the room as his potential voters snacked on ceviche and mussels, then he paused for a short, relatable speech.

“How many of you know someone who’s out of work?” he asked. His hand went up—so did most everyone else’s. “I’ll tell ya, it’s a problem. One out of five Americans is unemployed or underemployed. You go to Atlanta, you don’t see it, but you go around the state and you see it a lot.”

After the speech, Perdue strolled over to the reporter in the room to rebut the latest charges against him. He didn’t favor tax hikes; he’d been telling the newspaper in Macon that he favored “revenue,” and politicians misunderstood him. He wasn’t an elitist. “We could retire four career politicians in this race,” he said. “The federal reserve has put several trillion dollars into the economy and the economy’s really not growing,” he said.

But the “high school degree” story has been hard to erase. Candidates like Perdue or Cain happily rip into “politicians” as know-nothings and meddlers. Whenever Perdue talked about those politicians, he couldn’t help but point out that they weren’t that smart.  “You have people in political leadership who don’t have a lot of experience in the free enterprise system,” he said. Could Georgia’s coasts withstand climate change? Sure, the right people could figure it out. Alas: “The EPA is really overreaching and damaging entire industries. We’ve got to get some common sense back in Washington—in science, there’s an active debate going on.”

Back in the Atlanta suburbs, in the downtown plaza of Douglassville, Jack Kingston was taking an even softer tone. His pitch, in ads and in person, was that he was incredibly, personally thrifty. He rode to events in a Buick Roadmaster with 279,000 miles on the speedometer and a paint job chipping like some ancient church fresco. Some campaign aides followed in an RV, but it was the Roadmaster that voters recognized from TV. “I’m the only one in this race who’s cut the budget,” said Kingston to a few dozen assembled voters and dignitaries.

He didn’t say much more about what he’d cut. Kingston huddled for a little while with Terry Baggett, a retired air force colonel who wanted Kingston to keep funding the A-10 Thunderbolt. It was an old, “tank-killing” plane, one that the Obama administration had put on the block to save money, but the veteran didn’t want to see it go.

“I’ve represented five out of our eight military installations,” Kingston told the crowd. “I don’t ever want America’s service men and women to have to fight a fair fight. I want them to be the best trained and best equipped so that they can go to any place and we know what the outcome will be.”

Kingston wasn’t running as moderate. No one was. He had the Chamber of Commerce behind him, which made it impossible for him to run as “the Tea Party candidate,” but even William Temple said he could support Kingston in the fall. Kingston, like the rest of this year’s “establishment” candidates, was running as far to the right as he could. He just wasn’t going to give Democrats as much to work with as poor Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey.

The Democrats had not given up hope. Wherever he traveled, Kingston was trailed by liberal video trackers—an honor not given to Broun or Gingrey or Handel. “They’re with Morning Joe,” said Kingston, pointing at an NBC crew who’d followed him to Douglassville. He pointed at the trackers. “They’re with George Soros.”

As Kingston walked the plaza, a towering volunteer in brown cowboy boots hoisted a KINGSTON sign. The trackers moved, and he moved his sign in front of them. “Ever play cat-and-mouse?” he asked a former local GOP chairman who was watching the dance. After the meet-and-greet, Kingston ducked inside city hall for an interview. The tracker was blocked at the door; the aide and the former chairman exchanged a quick high-five.  

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.