On July 13 Savannah Congressman Jack Kingston and veteran corporate exec David Perdue squared off for the only debate during one of Georgia's most contentious and costly Republican campaigns over the past year and a half.
Inside Georgia Public Broadcasting's headquarters, the GOP candidates lobbed accusations of elitism, ineffectiveness, and feathering one's nest through family connections. The war of words, during which the pair mostly overlooked policy proposals, showed the tension in the race to fill the soon-to-be-open seat occupied by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Throughout the state, Republican voters next Tuesday will decide in a runoff election whether they want Kingston, a career politician looking for promotion from his current post, or Perdue, a career businessman who says he wants to help reform Washington, D.C., to face off against Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn in Georgia's U.S. Senate race. Nunn, a political newcomer who's had little opposition up until this point, hopes to turn the seat blue. But pundits say she faces a tough road ahead, no matter who wins the GOP runoff.
In the high-stakes race, one in which the candidates spent a combined $11 million, Kingston has emerged as the Republican establishment candidate. The 11-term congressman says he'll continue to lobby for gun rights, boost national defense efforts, and fight illegal immigration. He's also been one of the longest supporters of the Savannah Port deepening, which after 17 years secured hundreds of millions in federal funds in 2014 to move forward.
Perdue, a wealthy businessman with experience leading companies such as Dollar General and Reebok, fancies himself an "outsider" to Washington D.C. If elected, he intends to cut wasteful spending, overhaul the nation's tax code, and tackle the nation's debt crisis. Perdue claims his corporate background will help him revive the American economy.
Both candidates emerged from a crowded seven-candidate primary, with Perdue garnering 30.6 percent of the vote, the most among the GOP hopefuls. Since then he has lost much of his lead in subsequent polls. Congressman Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and former Ga. Secretary of State Karen Handel — who finished second and third, respectively, in the primary — have also endorsed the Savannah congressman.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, thinks Kingston has done a better job of earning endorsements from Republican supporters since the primary. He says Perdue's lack of political experience could hurt his campaign given the way he alienated other candidates during the campaign — a "rookie mistake," Bullock says. Runoffs tend to attract fewer voters to the polls, he says, which means that those who do turn out place value on experience.
Instead of focusing on policy, the Kingston-Perdue runoff has slowly devolved into a mudslinging fest with each in hopes of discrediting the other. The candidates attacked each other during the Atlanta Press Club debate. One panelist, Ben Roberts, an anchor at Albany's WALB, called them out early on for fanning "manufactured scandals" instead of important issues.
Nevertheless, Perdue called Kingston "open for business" after he received $80,000 in campaign donations from a Palestinian felon through straw donors. Kingston says he returned the cash and has complied with federal investigators. Perdue has also called Kingston the "king of earmarks," pointing to more than $200 million in funding he's snagged between 2008 and 2010 — the most of any Georgia reps during that period.
Kingston has returned fire at Perdue. He has called out the consultant, whom some critics have dubbed "Georgia's Mitt Romney," for his corporate layoffs and being out of touch with average Georgians. "Your whole lifestyle is based in a different way," Kingston said to his opponent during the debate. "You live inside a gated community inside a gated community with a gate on your house." Perdue, who now resides in a Sea Island mansion, defended his self-made fortune as the achievement of the American Dream.
The Savannah congressman has also accused Perdue — who co-owns a trucking company with his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue — of personally benefitting from his time as a Georgia Ports Authority board member. Perdue called Kingston's claims a "desperate move by a career politician who's frankly afraid for his career."
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, Kennesaw State University Political Science Professor Kerwin Swint expects the ultimate GOP candidate to start off as the favorite against Nunn — daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and a nonprofit professional — who, since easily winning the Democratic primary, has campaigned free from opposition. But he says that Nunn, a political newcomer, could attack Kingston's 22-year record or Perdue's business background in the coming months. "I'm not sure either would fare better than the other," he says.
Ultimately, Bullock says Kingston's campaign experience will likely give him a bigger edge against the Democrat. "Kingston won't say anything stupid," he says. "Perdue might."