ATLANTA -- Voters in the Republican Senate runoff who want an experienced hand who came up through the party ranks have that option in Jack Kingston.
His career is the life’s dream of teenaged political junkies. The volunteering he and his wife were doing at a fundraiser as members of the Savannah Young Republicans led to the chance to meet one of his heroes, Ronald Reagan, then a former governor running for president.
Kingston’s hard work and connections led to winning a seat in the state House of Representatives for Savannah in 1984. Six years later he became the first Republican to hold the First District congressional seat since Reconstruction, and he’s been in Washington ever since, rising in seniority and power over those 22 years.
Although he never had serious opposition after his first legislative race, he says he still likes campaigning. Yet, these days, he frequently runs into questions about his years in Congress spawned by negative television ads from runoff opponent David Perdue attacking him primarily for his votes on spending.
“One of the constant concerns you have is that people are too polite when they come up to you. I’d rather have them ask me head on,” he said.
So, here they are, head-on.
He’s being called “king of the earmarks” because he used them more in a three-year period than all other Republican members of the Georgia legislative delegation combined. Kingston says the reason is simply that he was the only Georgian on an appropriations committee and he was carrying water for his state on behalf of the rest of them.
“Jack will say, ‘Yeah, some of these earmarks were good.’ I don’t disagree, but when it’s with borrowed money, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Perdue said.
Kingston defends himself by noting he played a role in halting the longtime practice.
“People conveniently overlook the fact that I introduced the first earmarks reform back in 2007 and called on a moratorium that is in effect now,” he said.
Voting eight times to raise the debt ceiling is another charge. He responds that each of those votes was after hard bargaining resulted in agreements for budget cuts. Plus, he voted against debt hikes 17 times.
And multiple votes to raise the pay he and other members of Congress received is another charge from Perdue. Kingston notes that Perdue once received a generous paycheck for a brief tenure as chief executive of Pillowtex, a bankrupt textile company that soon collapsed.
“I find it laughable that someone who took $3.4 million in nine months’ time and presided over the largest textile layoff in history is worried about a (congressional) cost of living increase of 2 percent,” Kingston said.
The biggest difference between Kingston and Perdue is that one had a career in Congress while the other held a career as a senior executive in private enterprise. Perdue is appealing to voters who want a change while Kingston’s support comes from those who appreciate his conservative voting record.
Kingston has won the endorsements of the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- as well as many tea party leaders who generally oppose the chamber. He has a lifetime voting record of 100 percent in accord with the National Conservative Union and 96 percent with the National Federation of Independent Business.
“When he goes around saying that Jack Kingston is a liberal, it just doesn’t have credibility,” Kingston said of his opponent’s attacks.
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said while primary voters may be more attuned to attack ads than general-election voters, he said they are not ploughing new ground.
“The content of the ads is pretty well known,” he said. “There is nothing striking or new in them, but I guess it’s about repetition.”
What may carry weight with some voters are the endorsements Kingston has collected from former rivals Karen Handel and Phil Gingrey, according to Charles Bullock, a political science professor and author at the University of Georgia.
“Whether he’s benefiting directly from the supporters of those other candidates, I can’t work that out,” Bullock said.