Sunday, August 10, 2014

Race of the Day- Georgia U.S. Senate

86 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Open
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

As Democrats try to cling on to their Senate majority, they have found few opportunities this year to try to win a seat currently held by Republicans. An open seat in Georgia has been considered one of their only opportunities to do so, and a victory here could certainly prevent a GOP takeover of the Senate. However, it would take basically a perfect storm for the Democrats to win this race and that does not seem to be happening.

Current Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss surprised many by announcing fairly early last year that he would not seek a third term. After two tough races that involved beating a Democrat incumbent in an upset in 2002 and having to go to a runoff in 2008, in the face of a strong Democrat turnout in November of that year, Chambliss was likely wary of the prospect of facing a potential primary challenge from the right. He cited frustration about the way things were done in Washington as his reason for retiring.

In mentioning how Chambliss was reelected six years ago, it is worth nothing the somewhat unique requirement that Georgia has of it's winners needing to achieve a majority of the vote to win without a runoff. If the race is close this year and the winner falls below 50 percent, a runoff will need to occur, but not until early January of 2015. That would involve a new Senator being elected just days before they are to be sworn into office. There is also the possibility that Georgia could face a runoff in a competitive race for Governor, but that contest would occur in December. While chances are remote, there is a possibility that Peach State voters will be asked to go to the polls five times this cycle.

The retirement announcement of Chambliss opened up an opportunity for Democrats in a state where they thought they could at least be competitive. There would have been little chance of knocking off a two-term incumbent Republican, but a plethora of GOP candidates would now be throwing their hat into the ring and it was possible that in such a field, it was possible for Republicans to nominate a politically weak general election candidate.

A handful of Democrats would also enter the race, but the party mostly coalesced around the candidacy of Michelle Nunn, a non-profit executive who had bipartisan ties from her work with the Bush family Points of Light Foundation. Having never run for office before, Nunn had name recognition by virtue of her father, Sam Nunn, a longtime former Georgia Senator with heavy national security credentials, who harkened back to a time when Democrats were dominant in Georgia politics.

In the meantime, a massive primary field for Republicans emerged. Five candidates were seen as having a chance of winning the nomination though. They were Congressman Paul Broun, an ally of Ron Paul, and a favorite of many in the Tea Party, with a penchant for saying politically inflammatory things that could have made him unelectable. Competing with him on the right flank was his Congressional colleague and fellow physician Phil Gingrey, who was only slightly less likely to make headlines with his rhetoric. A third Georgia Congressman in the race was House veteran Jack Kingston, who was finally making a statewide race after much speculation over the years. He was somewhat different from his fellow GOP candidates in that he hailed from the Savannah area. The only woman in the field was former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who had lost a 2010 primary for Governor in which she was once the front-runner. Another candidate had never run for office before, but like Nunn and several others running in Georgia this year, has a famous last name. Businessman David Purdue is the cousin of Sonny Perdue, a two term Governor, and the first Republican to hold that job since Reconstruction.

The Republican candidates trotted out endorsements and fought for every advantage they could in order to advance to what was certain to be a July runoff. Republicans across the country were just hoping that Broun and Gingrey would not advance to face each other in that runoff because they were seen as being less electable while the other candidates would all be considered general election favorites. Both of those Congressman consistently polled towards the back of the field though. Perdue, who was a late entrant into the race spent a lot of his personal money to put himself in a strong position. He attacked all of his main opponents as being political insiders who had not made a positive difference and ran ads featuring them as bickering infants. He also generated negative headlines by criticizing Handel for her lack of a college degree.

Perdue was able to capitalize on his status as a successful businessman and outsider to place first in the primary with just over 30 percent of the vote. That might have been despite the fact that he was likely the least ideologically conservative candidate in the race. Finishing second and advancing to the runoff, largely on the basis of strong support from his geographic base was Jack Kingston. While polls had shown Nunn running surprisingly well against the GOP field, while they were attacking each other, Republicans breathed a sigh of relief that the two strongest general election candidates probably made it to the runoff.

Having generated some hard feelings among the candidates that lost, many of them, especially Handel, and those who had endorsed them, would gravitate to Kingston. For the entire duration of the runoff campaign, it looked like the well-liked Congressman would ultimately emerge victorious. The fight between the two runner-offs would continue to be pretty expensive and brutal though as the candidates attacked each other for being insufficiently conservative. The "insider" Kingston, had the backing of a lot of the Tea Party groups in the state, while Perdue, the outsider claimed the endorsement of former conservative Presidential candidate Herman Cain.

Ultimately, it may have been geography that produced a surprise result, as Perdue narrowly defeated Kingston in the runoff. The businessman from the Atlanta area won the votes from that heavily populated area of the state as well as conservative voters from the northern part of Georgia. Kingston, whose base was from southern Georgia did not succeed in appealing to the the more recent transplants from the state. Handel, who finished third in the primary, might have strongly endorsed Kingston, but her supporters seemed to prefer Perdue.

The 64 year old wealthy former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General had succeeded in defeating three Congressmen and a former Secretary of State with some big name national support, to face another first time candidate. Democrats and the Nunn campaign were probably preparing to face Kingston and likely had plenty of opposition research done on his thousands of Congressional votes over the years. With Perdue, that strategy has changed greatly. They may instead have to hope that Georgia voters will be turned off by Perdue's millionaire status and demeanor.

It still remains to be seen as to how strong Michelle Nunn actually is as a candidate. Democrats could probably have done a lot worse, but the state has changed a great deal since her father was in the Senate, and her party label alone puts her at a disadvantage in what is a conservative southern state, especially in a midterm election where Barack Obama is quite unpopular. Democrats believe the demographics of the state are moving it back towards the Democrats, but even if that is true, this may not be the year to see it proven.

As long as Republicans are able to unite behind Perdue, they should win this race. Almost immediately after the runoff was concluded, Perdue's standing against Nunn in the polls started to improve. Her campaign was further embarrassed by the leaking of a campaign strategy memo from last year, in which her strategists laid out the reason for which she might be vulnerable in a Georgia race. That is certainly not the kind of thing campaigns want out in the public realm.

If this were 2008, Nunn might have a real shot of winning in Georgia. While I think it is a bit too early to totally count her out, I do not think she will be able to generate the turnout she needs to win this year. I am classifying this race now as "Leans Republican" but by late October, I think it is possible that there may be consensus that it is even more favorable to the GOP in a state where Democrats have not won a Senate contest in 18 years.

David Perdue might be older than the average freshman U.S. Senator, but he certainly looks like a Senator, and his strategy of winning the nomination proved to be shrewd. He will have to try to avoid gaffes on the campaign trail during the homestretch, but should certainly be considered the favorite. It is pure speculation at this point whether Kingston or Handel would be in an even stronger position. Democrats can only bemoan the lost opportunity of not facing Paul Broun.

Perdue campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 2 D (1 Safe, 1 Tossup), 4 R (1 Safe, 2 Leans, 1 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 36 D, 34 R (net Republican gain of 2)


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