SAVANNAH, Ga. — For two decades, Rep. Jack Kingston was a congressman who routinely crushed his opponents on election night – winning a new term every other year with vote totals between 63 and 77 percent.
That streak ended Tuesday, along with his 22-year career on Capitol Hill.
The Savannah Republican fell a few thousand votes short in his primary runoff for the U.S. Senate, losing the GOP nomination for the open seat to businessman David Perdue.
“If you never hear or see from me again, I’ve had more of my fair share of the action, the fun and the honor of serving,” Kingston told reporters after conceding.
The news hit especially hard in coastal and southeast Georgia, where Kingston has represented the 1st Congressional District since 1993. Back home, he was known for an aw-shucks attitude that disguised an ability to get things done – whether it was replacing a constituent’s expired passport at the last minute, funding new Army barracks or pushing through a $706 million harbor expansion for Savannah’s port.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he knows how to get around Washington and get things going,’ ” said Lis Overton, who heads the Chatham County Republican Party. “We’re all a little depressed right now.”
Kingston’s defeat lessens Georgia’s political experience in Washington. Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and all three incumbent congressmen who sought his Senate seat – Kingston and fellow GOP Reps. Paul Broun of Athens and Phil Gingrey of Marietta – have been sent home by voters.
“We’ll lose influence,” said Lindsay Thomas, the former Democratic congressman whose decision to leave the House in 1992 opened the door for Kingston to run. “To me, the saddest thing about losing Jack is he would’ve walked onto the Senate floor with immediate credibility. They wouldn’t wonder, ‘How is he going to vote and can I trust him?’ ”
Kingston should have time to attempt a comeback if he chooses. If Gov. Nathan Deal wins re-election, Georgia will have an open race for governor in 2018.
Overton said she would like to see Kingston consider running for Savannah mayor. Opportunities should also abound in the private sector.
“I really think the Lord’s going to open a door,” Kingston said.
His friend Eric Johnson in Savannah, a former Republican leader of the Georgia Senate, said Kingston might have little desire to run another statewide campaign. Johnson ran for governor in 2010, finishing third in the GOP primary.
“You put your blood, sweat and tears and life into that thing. And now that you know what it’s like, it may be tough to do that again,” Johnson said. “He’ll find something to do. He’s too young to retire. He has too much energy and likes people too much.”
In 1992, Kingston was a state legislator who made a living selling agribusiness insurance when he became the first Republican since Reconstruction elected to Congress from his southeast Georgia district. He got a political boost in his second term thanks to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress engineered by Newt Gingrich.
Kingston got assigned to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, giving him considerable influence to steer federal dollars back home. Fort Stewart and other military bases in Kingston’s district benefited from new construction and expansions. The Sidney Lanier Bridge in Brunswick, Georgia’s largest bridge, was completed in 2003 thanks to Kingston’s help funding its $110 million construction.
Kingston got Congress to authorize a major deepening of the Port of Savannah’s shipping channel in 1999. Earlier this year, he helped the harbor project clear its final bureaucratic hurdles so that dredging can finally begin 15 years later.
Regardless of their differences, even Democrats gave Kingston credit for putting constituents before politics.
Tony Center was the Democratic Party chairman for Chatham County in 2005 when he frantically called a Kingston staffer at night after discovering his passport was expired just two days before an overseas trip. Kingston’s office called the State Department and Center picked up his new passport the next day.
“I got a phone call from Jack. He said, ‘I heard you had a problem and I just wanted to make sure it got taken care of,’” Center said. “I was chairman of the Democratic committee at the time and he could’ve blown me off. But he was my congressman and he helped me.”