Is Georgia’s U.S. Senate race a coal mine canary for GOP?

by David Lightman - McClatchy Washington Bureau


Candidates from president’s party tend to do better when the president is popular, but somewhat worse in midterm years.

MACON, Ga . Georgia’s next Republican Senate nominee is likely to triumph on style and strategy, and as a result, national eyes are watching this race as a harbinger of things to come for party hopefuls around the country this year.

The clenched-fist ardor that helped the tea party rise in 2010 has cooled, and while candidates and constituents retain the passion for a big Washington shakeup, for many the tone is gentler.

“I’m kind of angry. I’m tired of people who go to Washington and just don’t do their job,” Suzanne Wood, the chairwoman of the Bibb County Republican Party, said almost matter-of-factly.

The candidates in the May 20 primary vary little on issues, but each vows to shake up Washington in their own unique way. The winning tactics are being watched closely as a template for Republicans in other states, Republicans scrambling to find the formula that will hold the conservative base without alienating crucial swing voters in November.

Others are watching to see what works _ will it be the style of Rep. Paul Broun, the hardcore, give ’em hell conservative; the equally conservative but more measured approaches of Reps. Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey; or the potentially strong candidates with no ties to Washington, former state and local official Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue.

No one is really the favorite, and it’s hard to tell anyone apart on issues.

People might like the views of someone like Broun, but some quickly rule him out because of his current occupation. “He’s in office,” explained John House, a Midland college teacher.

Republican voters do agree they’re seeking two qualities: Someone who can win and who can shake up Washington.

“The big issue is how can one person make a difference,” said Jayne Govar, a Columbus, Ga., real estate agent.

That’s a tough challenge. Fire-and-brimstone candidates, helped by the grassroots tea party movement, won 2010 and 2012 Republican Senate nominations in other states but in some cases lost general elections because they were seen as too extreme.

The next Georgia senator will succeed the genteel Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. Broun fights suspicions he’s too rough for the general electorate.

“There’s a side of him that’s off the rails,” said Douglas Deal, a Macon software developer. He recalled Broun, a physician, telling a Georgia church group in 2012, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”

In an interview with McClatchy, Broun insisted: “I’m not extreme at all. I’m an original constitutionalist.” The reason Republicans often lose, he said, is that true conservatives get disgusted with more centrist party candidates and stay home in the general election.

Broun plays particularly well among the frustrated right. His AR-15 assault rifle giveaway drew an estimated 100,000 contestants, and his campaign is now conducting a second promotion.

Broun vows to shake up Washington, even if means alienating fellow Republicans. “Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives are just as guilty,” he says. “I see it as my job to educate the American people about what government is supposed to be.”

Kingston counters with a calmer approach. “I don’t think yelling and screaming gets things done,” he said in an interview.

His address to the Rotary Club at LaGrange’s Highland Country Club last week was full of talk about unity, the kind of reasonable dialogue some Republicans are eager to hear. “He can attract voters other Republicans can’t,” said Shirley Pennebaker, a LaGrange education consultant.

Bill Stump, a local bank president, asked Kingston how his points are any different from anyone else’s. “When you hear these speeches one at a time they agree on the same things,” Stump said.

Look at my record, Kingston urged. He doesn’t inch away from his Washington resume _ he’s held top positions on spending panels overseeing agriculture, defense, health, education and retirement security issues.

He tries to deflect the not-conservative-enough charge with ads saying he has the race’s most conservative voting record. The National Journal’s 2013 ratings agree on that point, though the American Conservative Union’s ratings put him below Broun but ahead of Gingrey.

An obstetrician/gynecologist, Gingrey is particularly critical of the Affordable Care Act. “The president’s government takeover of the health care industry threatens tens of thousands of private practices with the very real possibility they could have to close their doors,” he told constituents recently, “leaving their longtime patients without a place to turn.”

The wild cards are the candidates without Washington ties. Republican voter Bart Tharpe is a retired postal employee who contributed $88,000 to his pension fund over 34 years. He retired three years ago at 52 and figures if he lives to be 92 he’ll draw a total of about $3 million in pension money.

“I know these numbers don’t work,” he said. “Someone has to pay for this.”

He’d be willing to take a cut if it went across the board, and figures Perdue, a former Dollar General chief executive officer, understands that logic. Perdue emphasizes his independence from Washington and its ways, and it resonates in some quarters.

“He’s a businessman, and we sure don’t need any more lawyers,” Tharpe said.

Handel said she offers a more personal touch. A former Georgia secretary of state and commission chairwoman in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some of its suburbs, she lost a close Republican primary race for governor in 2010. Handel, in an interview, said she’ll stand out from the pack because of “a track record of getting conservative results in a tough environment,” as well as a well-honed grassroots network and personal friendships from her previous runs.

She estimates she writes several hundred notes a week to friends and supporters. Deal got one when he was in the hospital. Wood got a birthday greeting.

Handel also stirred strong interest among women during a Macon Republican discussion organized by McClatchy.

Chances are the winner of this primary will face Democrat Michelle Nunn. The daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, she is trying to emulate her father’s centrist ways and has the potential to raise plenty of money.

A woman vs. woman race, Republicans are convinced, gives them a special edge. Nunn, said Sherrie Wallace, a Macon government contractor, is the scion of a prominent family. Handel is not.

“You look at her and think if she can do it, I can do it. She worked her way up in a competitive male world,” Wallace says of Handel.

Democrats scoff. Gender doesn’t matter, they say. “When do you stand up for something that relates to my success?” asked Kim Carter, a Macon school administrator and Democrat.

For now, Republicans have other concerns, notably trying to separate themselves from a pack, and no one really has any magic way of doing that. They know this much, said Jenny Eckman, a Columbus Republican activist: “This is difficult.”

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