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.

Karen Handel, David Perdue
Karen Handel, left, and David Perdue during the Georgia U.S. Senate debate, in April.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

KENNESAW, Georgia—The last great public battle between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment happened a few hours away from here, right over the Georgia–Florida border. One month ago, the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership decamped to Amelia Island for its annual retreat. Tea Party activists, furious at the presence of Republican leaders like Rep. Eric Cantor, followed them down. Gadsden-flag-wavers from northeast Florida and southeast Georgia gathered outside the meeting to shame them.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“We surrounded the place,” remembers William Temple. “Over the whole weekend they had to look out of their windows at rattlesnake flags!”

Eventually, the scene irritated former Rep. Steve LaTourette so much that the RMSP’s president stormed outside to get in Temple’s face. His might be the most famous citizen face in the Tea Party. Temple, a pastor in Brunswick, Georgia, shows up to an unbelievable number of conservative events in full Revolutionary War garb. A reporter searching for a generic photo of a “Tea Partier” usually plumps for one of Temple, waving his flag and bellowing “huzzah” after a Michele Bachmann zinger.

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“So am I a traitor?” LaTourette asked Temple. “Am I a traitor?”

“I told him, if you’re supporting this PAC, you’re a traitor,” remembers Temple. “We’ve got all your faces. We know who you all are.”

But the Georgia Tea Party doesn’t know who its Senate candidate is. Last year, as soon as Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement, conservatives saw a chance to replace a deal-cutting, TARP-supporting Republican with one of their own. Georgia had produced William Temple, Tea Party Patriots, and the entire political career of Herman Cain—why shouldn’t it have a Tea Party senator? What did it matter if the Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn, was polling unusually well? Rep. Paul Broun, who describes himself as being “Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” jumped into the race. So did Rep. Phil Gingrey, a reliable vote against any compromise in the House and a reliable sponsor of anti-Obamacare legislation.

Both have faded in the stretch. In the campaign’s final week, Broun and Gingrey are burning their cash on TV ads and making appearances at friendly venues. Democrats, who had hoped to see one of them make the July runoff, now concede that the first round of the race will come down to 20-year Rep. Jack Kingston, wealthy businessman David Perdue, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Gingrey is closing by accusing Handel of “promoting teenage homosexuality” in her days as chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

Broun is going out with a playlist of everything he’s failed to achieve since coming to Congress in 2007. At a Tuesday night meeting of the Canton Tea Party, Broun waved his pocket Constitution in the air and declared that he only put it down when he was “in the shower.”

“Let’s close down the Department of Education and get rid of Common Core once and for all,” said Broun. “And while we’re closin’ down things, y’all, let’s close down the EPA also. We’ve got to get the heavy boot of the EPA off of our economy. And while we’re shutting down things, y’all, let’s shut down the IRS also!”

Broun and Gingrey have their adherents, and some loyalty in the districts they’ve represented since 2007 and 2003. After a Republican Party dinner in Rome, Georgia—Handel was there, and Kingston sent his son John as a surrogate—local activist Mickey Tuck said he was sticking with Broun as long as he could.

“I’m kind of a Republican-leaning, libertarian—stand with Rand,” said Tuck. “Broun’s always been voting conservative. The other two congressmen changed their votes once they started running this year.”

That’s the important part of the Broun/Gingrey fade—their politics have been passed on to the front-runners, who were plenty conservative to start with. It hasn’t even been four years since Republicans won the House and conservatives lobbied for Kingston to take over the Appropriations Committee on the theory that he’d be a reliable spending-slasher. It was just two years ago that Handel resigned from Susan G. Komen for the Cure after she’d cut the group’s ties to Planned Parenthood and progressives rose up in a fury. David Perdue? On Friday, Herman Cain used his radio show to declare (in the third person, as is his wont) that Perdue “looks like a mirror image of Herman Cain.”

The front-runners, bereft of true ideological differences, are closing out the race with appeals to different cultures. Each is traversing the state’s population centers in a campaign bus, packing in as many meet-and-greets as they can stand. Handel started her tour on Tuesday, at a diner in the north Atlanta suburb of Roswell. As they shuffled in and ordered coffee, Handel’s supporters could grab fliers that portrayed her congressional opponents as incompetent frauds and Perdue as an “elitist.” It had been more than a month since Perdue had dismissed Handel as a “high school graduate,” less able to understand the complexities of government than a world-traveler like him. It had been more than a month since he apologized. Handel kept battering him with the quote anyway.

“I’m proud of the fact that I was able to overcome long odds,” said Handel. “I’m proud of the fact that a lot of Georgians did the same thing.” As she talked, a supporter pointed out to me that 58 percent of Georgians lacked college degrees.

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