The Republican Senate primary has looked like a cage match between five politicians biting and gouging to see who can move most sharply to the far right edge of the ring. The national media is fascinated by this campaign and tends to describe it as a freak show staged by a party determined to blow itself up. A typical headline out of Washington was, “GOP threatens to push self-destruct button in Georgia Senate race.”
You can understand how they might get that impression. One of the leading candidates, Rep. Paul Broun, held a raffle for an assault weapon just like the one used in the Sandy Hook school massacre. Another major contender, Rep. Jack Kingston, made the controversial remark that low-income children should be required to perform janitorial work before they can get a free lunch at school. You even had a minor candidate, Derrick Grayson, openly acknowledge his background as a convicted felon. “I engaged in criminal activity that resulted in a prison sentence,” Grayson said during a campaign appearance. “That was a choice that I made.”
It has been difficult to predict a winner from such a colorful group of candidates, but there are signs that the race is starting to sort itself out. Some recent polls show businessman David Perdue—the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue—leading the field by a small margin. Kingston and Broun have run close behind Perdue, while Rep. Phil Gingrey is leaking support and former Secretary of State Karen Handel is dropping steadily to the bottom of the pack. Each of these polls also included a large number of undecided voters ranging from 25 percent to 44 percent of those surveyed. Every candidate has room to grow.
Handel rolled out an endorsement last week from Sarah Palin, obviously hoping that the former Alaska governor can spark some kind of fire among primary voters. That magic didn’t work very well for Handel in the 2010 governor’s race, and it seems less likely to do her any good in this campaign. Perdue appears to be profiting from his decision to position himself as the outsider who’s never run for office before and therefore is in the best position to fix what’s wrong in Washington. It doesn’t hurt that he also has a personal fortune he can spend to run TV ads reinforcing that point.
While he is just as conservative as his four opponents, Perdue has been taking some comparatively moderate stands on hot-button issues. He chided Kingston for making the statement that low-income children should “sweep out the cafeteria” before they get a government-subsidized lunch: "With all the nonsense worth criticizing in Washington right now, Congressman Kingston chose to ridicule children who, through no fault of their own, rely on free school lunches.” In a newspaper interview, Perdue said abortion is a decision “that should be left to that family—that mother and that family.” He also said he didn’t think guns should be allowed on college campuses.
For some conservative Republicans, those kinds of remarks would make Perdue eligible to be burned at the stake. As the other candidates start reminding primary voters of these comments, it will be interesting to see if he can continue his climb in the polls. Kingston and Perdue still have the money to spend on TV spots, which may keep them up in the polls. Broun has never been very effective at fundraising, but there is always a chance that a conservative PAC will step up and pump some cash into his campaign tank. Gingrey and Handel need to reverse their slide in the polls to have a realistic chance of getting the nomination.
It still looks like there will be a runoff involving a tea party candidate—probably Broun—and an establishment candidate amenable to the party’s Wall Street wing, perhaps Perdue or Kingston.