Georgia Senate Race Now Defined

On the heels of representatives John Barrow (D-GA-12) and Tom Price (D-GA-6) both making public their decisions not to run, it appears that a set open-seat field of Georgia Senate race contenders is in place, some 14 months before the 2014 primary election.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who was expected to run for the Senate once Price made clear that he will stay in the House, and businessman David Perdue now join representatives Jack Kingston (R-GA-1), Paul Broun (R-GA-10), and Phil Gingrey (R-GA-11) in vying for the Republican senatorial nomination and the right to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R).

Handel and Perdue entering the race greatly changes the campaign. Now with five strong candidates, the Georgia Republican senatorial primary will likely be the most interesting nomination battle in the entire country.

Handel began her career in the private sector before landing a position on Marilyn Quayle’s staff when Dan Quayle, was vice president. Handel later became deputy chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-GA). Her first elected position was as Fulton County commission chair. From that office, she launched a successful bid for secretary of state in 2006.

Four years later, Handel joined a similarly crowded field in the open governor’s race. She placed first in the primary, capturing 34.1 percent of the vote, topping her six opponents. Former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA-9) slipped into the second run-off position, gliding past insurance commissioner John Oxendine, who had been the early front-runner. But things did not go as well for her in the August run-off. She and Deal basically fought to a draw, but the former congressman (Deal had resigned his House seat prior to the primary election) nipped her at the end and claimed a 50.2-49.8 percent win, a margin of just 2,519 votes of just under 580,000 cast.

David Perdue is the former Chief Executive Officer of both the Dollar General and Reebok companies. He is also a cousin to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, which obviously gives him a name identification boost. Perdue is independently wealthy, capable of raising big money, will have a professionally run campaign, and has the advantage of possessing no legislative voting record.

All of the candidates have unique individual strengths. Broun will excel with grassroots conservatives, an important asset in a Georgia GOP primary. Gingrey has a conservative voting record that compliments a strong fundraising operation. Kingston will be the only candidate hailing from the southern part of the state. Even though less than a quarter of the primary vote comes from the region south of Interstate 20, the other candidates splitting the vote-rich north could yield a run-off position to an individual with a smaller, but united, geographic base.

Handel is the only woman in the field and has experience winning this type of multi-candidate primary campaign. Perdue will have the money to compete, the former governor’s name, and an opportunity of running against the congressmen as a group, pinning Washington’s unpopularity to each of their lapels. He can then point to the fact that he is the only non-politician within the group, thus possibly creating the same type of electoral dynamic that elected businessman Rick Snyder as governor of Michigan.

Without Barrow running on the Democratic side, it appears that Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D), will become a consensus candidate. Her advantage will be utilizing the 15 months between now and the Republican run-off date to raise her campaign war chest and take advantage of her conservative opponents’ attacking themselves.

The eventual GOP nominee, whoever it may be, should begin the general election campaign in the favorite’s position but, as we saw in North Dakota last November, the early leader is not always the eventual winner.

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