ATLANTA -- It’s safe to say that with public approval of Congress in single digits and President Barack Obama’s job-approval numbers in negative territory that Georgia voters are displeased with Washington, and Tuesday they decided that a new broom would work best to sweep D.C.
Jack Kingston and David Perdue each claimed to represent the biggest departure from business as usual in the federal government, but Kingston didn’t convince voters that after 22 years there that he never became co-opted by it.
Deborah Corbett, a voter from Newnan, spoke for many Republicans.
“Both candidates seemed like nice guys,” she said, adding that she also ultimately picked Perdue. “Kingston has had his chance. He’s talking now about all the things he could have done during 22 years in Congress.”
The blistering attacks Perdue and Kingston fire at one another were a turnoff for voters, as is usually the case, but they seemed to backfire on Kingston, the Savannah congressman.
Ben Perry of Duluth who voted for Perdue said he wasn’t surprised by the negative ads but viewed Kingston’s as an immature tactic.
“I thought they were childish,” he said.
Leslie Champion, another Gwinnett voter who supported Perdue, said, “I particularly don’t like when a sitting congressman uses Democratic tools to attack somebody else.”
She excused Perdue for using the same tactics.
“I think if you’re bullied, then you have to fight back, and I think Kingston bullied Perdue, and he had to fight back,” she said.
Indeed, the barrage of back-and-forth attacks in the state’s longest runoff in history left voters and candidates alike feeling war weary after what could be called the modern Battle of Atlanta which culminated on the 150th anniversary of the original. This time it wasn’t northern invaders besieging the city but a civil war within the Republican Party fought by two candidates from the South, Perdue, the Bonaire native who lives on Sea Island, and Kingston, the Athens native who lives in Savannah.
If the ideological battle lines were blurred between camps with similar platforms, the geographic ones were stark. Kingston dominated South Georgia in both the primary and the runoff while Perdue commanded North Georgia. Neither could win without metro Atlanta where they both campaigned tirelessly.
Another division fell along age lines. Perdue targeted and captured voters 55 and older, those most reliable about turnout. Kingston sought those who were younger and succeeded, according to polls, in every age group below 65.
“Jack likes to mix is up with all kinds of people,” observed his long-time press secretary Chris Crawford, who recalls the youthful congressman as an early and frequent guest on Comedy Central shows and a social-media pioneer.
Kingston’s Senate campaign reflected his continuing interest in getting the Grand Old Party to attract younger and ethnically diverse voters. That approach built him a devoted following in the area he represented in Congress, but it didn’t work in a nomination fight against Perdue’s more traditional strategy.
What else didn’t work were the dozens of endorsements Kingston collected from former rivals, self-proclaimed tea party leaders and supposed special-interest powerhouses like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association. In earning the support of nearly the entire Republican establishment, Kingston should have been able to waltz into the Senate nomination the way Johnny Isakson did in 2004, easily trouncing other candidates.
One of those ‘04 candidates was Herman Cain, a retired CEO. Cain is now a talk-show host on Atlanta’s largest and most popular radio station, WSB, and his support of Perdue, a fellow veteran of the corporate suite, was critical. At the point in the campaign when Perdue was furthest behind in the polls over statements supposedly favoring tax increases, Cain allowed Perdue time on his show for a lengthy defense. He later recorded campaign radio ads and frequently stumped for Perdue on and off the air.
The bloody primary and runoff may have shrunk Perdue’s personal net worth as he self-funded much of his campaign and left him feeling bruised, but it has also made him battle-hardened which can serve him well as the attacks shift from his right flank to his left as he confronts Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn.
“You know, these intramural scrimmages are no fun,” Perdue quipped to supporters. “You beat up on your teammate, and then you’ve got to go into the locker room and talk to ‘em again. But I want to tell you, they make you better.”
While he was still making his acceptance speech, Democratic emails attacking him were arriving in reporters’ mailboxes.
“It’s clear multi-millionaire David Perdue is only looking out for himself. His shady business dealings have left companies billions in debt and bankrupt while leaving thousands jobless,” wrote Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Brad Woodhouse, president of a group called American Bridge, issued one titled “Meet Mitt Romney Light” that blasted Perdue for actions taken by companies where he was an executive and for being “an elitist millionaire.”
And the head of the Democratic Party of Georgia, DuBose Porter, greeted the new nominee with his own stone throwing.
“There is a clear contrast in this race between Michelle Nunn, a leader who has spent the last 25 years leading volunteer organizations and lifting communities up, and David Perdue, someone who has spent his career enriching himself while often times tearing companies and communities apart,” said Porter.
Perdue has promised to challenge Nunn for what he calls the failings of the last six years under President Barack Obama’s administration, and he’ll have plenty of help doing it from national political-action committees. He’ll also have the help of Kingston and his former supporters.
“I was big time for Jack, but I’ll have a Perdue sign in my yard by the end of the week,” said volunteer Jack Candler moments after Kingston’s concession.
And so, the battle rages on.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.