May 28, 2014

How David Perdue and Jack Kingston Won the Republican Senate Primary

When the U.S. Senate race started last year, the conventional wisdom was that Jack Kingston would be hindered by the fact he was not well-known to Georgia’s voters outside the coastal counties he represented in the 1st Congressional District. Kingston would be running at a disadvantage to former secretary of state Karen Handel, the thinking went, because she was much better known in the Republican-rich suburban counties of metro Atlanta.

In last week’s Republican primary, geography did turn out to be destiny for Kingston, but not in the way the political experts initially figured.

There was a spirited campaign to pick a successor to Kingston in the 1st Congressional District, and that primary election generated a stronger turnout of voters in the coastal and southeastern counties than in the Metro Atlanta area. In fact, it was the strong support for Kingston in the state’s southeastern quadrant that enabled him to hold off a late-charging Handel and secure a spot in the runoff against businessman David Perdue.

In some of the more populous counties along the coast, Kingston ran way ahead of Handel by margins of as much as 10–1 and 11–1. In Chatham County, Kingston’s home base, he received 13,988 of the 17,859 votes cast in the Senate GOP primary. Handel only got 1,232 votes. That trend was repeated in counties throughout southeastern Georgia. 

Handel ran ahead of Kingston in metro Atlanta, as she was expected to, but the turnout in those counties was not as robust as the counties in Kingston’s congressional district. She also was not carrying the counties by 10–1 margins as Kingston was down south. That’s why Kingston made it into the runoff with Perdue, while Handel was sent packing into political retirement.

Geography was also destiny in a couple of the state’s congressional races. Donna Sheldon, who was once the chair of the Georgia House Republican Caucus, and state Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), who was the House Majority Whip, gave up influential positions in the legislative leadership to make a try for the U.S. House. Sheldon ran in the 10th District, where Rep. Paul Broun was enticed to try for the Senate, while Lindsey was one of the candidates trying to replace Rep. Phil Gingrey in the 11th District. 

Lindsey and Sheldon were both running in congressional races where the legislative areas they represented were located on the extreme outer edges of the U.S. House districts. The 10th Congressional District covers a large swath of territory in the eastern region of Georgia. Gwinnett County, where Sheldon resides, accounts for a small slice in the northwest corner of that district. The 11th Congressional District has the bulk of its voters residing in Bartow, Cherokee and Cobb counties. There’s a sliver of Fulton County at the southern extreme of the district, which takes in Lindsey’s legislative district.

Lindsey and Sheldon were obviously well-known and well-liked in their legislative districts, but those areas made up a small portion of the congressional districts where they were running. That meant they had more work to do to build up name recognition and support among voters who were not familiar with them.

In the end, that proved to be an impossible task, and both of them finished out of contention for the runoff elections. Sheldon had 15 percent of the vote in the 10th District primary, where she trailed Jody Hice and Mike Collins, who are headed to the July 22 runoff. Lindsey likewise could attract only 15 percent support in the 11th District and will have to watch from the sidelines as Barry Loudermilk and Bob Barr fight it out in the runoff.

In politics, it not only matters who you are—sometimes it matters even more where you came from.