Former Dollar General Corp. (DG:US) Chief Executive Officer David Perdue won a divisive primary for Georgia’s Republican U.S. Senate nomination, a contest that raised doubts about the party’s prospects for holding a seat that may prove pivotal in November’s election.
Georgia offers Democrats one of their few chances to pick up a Republican-held seat and improve their odds of maintaining a majority in the U.S. Senate.
With all precincts reporting in yesterday’s runoff race, Perdue had 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent for U.S. Representative Jack Kingston, according to the Associated Press. The race was close throughout the night, with the candidates frequently exchanging leads.
“I think Perdue is going to be a very strong candidate,” Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said today in an interview. “Especially when you pull an upset like this, you look a lot stronger. And he’s really hitting the ground running.”
Perdue, 64, will focus on uniting Republicans as he turns his attention to defeating Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee who enjoys name recognition as the daughter of former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. The elder Nunn, also a Democrat, served four terms and was well known for his expertise on defense and national security.
Though Michelle Nunn, 47, has never held elective office, Democrats quickly coalesced behind her for the seat that incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss, 70, is giving up. Nunn took a leave of absence as head of Points of Light, a nonprofit group that promotes volunteerism, to make her Senate run.
Perdue also is a political newcomer.
“Now we’ve got to unite,” Perdue told supporters in his victory speech in Atlanta. “Our opponent should not be taken lightly.”
A poll conducted earlier this month by Landmark Communications Inc. for an Atlanta television station showed Nunn with a 6-percentage-point lead in a match-up with Perdue. Political analysts predict the race will tighten in Republican-leaning Georgia.
“Michelle Nunn, up to this point, has had the advantage of kind of running in a vacuum,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Republicans now will focus on “a major effort to tell a different story about Michelle Nunn than what we’ve seen up to this point,” he said.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win control of the 100-member Senate. Analysts say Democrats face long odds maintaining three seats they currently hold -- in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- and the party is defending most of several other seats rated as tossups.
Those challenges for Democrats have heightened the importance of the Georgia race for the party.
Democrats will be looking to Georgia “to offset the losses they will sustain among their own seats,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington.
A win for Democrats in Georgia “would be a tremendous boost to their chances of holding the Senate,” Gonzales said.
Perdue, who was also CEO of Reebok International Ltd., and Kingston, who first won his Savannah-area House seat in 1992, faced off yesterday after no one got at least 50 percent of the vote in a May 20 Republican primary that featured seven candidates.
Perdue had 31 percent while Kingston ran second with 26 percent in a campaign that began shortly after Chambliss announced in early 2013 he wouldn’t seek a third term.
Perdue and Kingston each have strong ties to business interests that throughout this year’s primary season have been pushing Republicans to steer clear of nominating candidates too strongly linked to the limited-government Tea Party movement who might have difficulty winning in November.
In the initial Georgia primary, the losing contenders included Representative Paul Broun, a member of the House Tea Party caucus who once called evolution a lie “straight from the pit of Hell.”
In the runoff campaign, Perdue questioned Kingston’s conservative credentials, accusing the lawmaker of being “pro-amnesty” on the issue of providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Kingston, whose backers included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spotlighted Perdue’s wealth. During a debate, he criticized the businessman’s decision to live in a “gated community.”
Perdue’s total compensation in 2007, his last year as CEO of Dollar General, totaled $25.9 million.
Perdue, a cousin of Georgia’s former Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, may rely on his wealth to help close a fundraising gap with Nunn. Though he had raised $5.8 million as of July 2, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, he had just $784,000 in cash on hand as the primary campaign depleted his resources.
“These intramural scrimmages are no fun,” Perdue said to laughter in his speech last night. “You beat up on your teammates, and you gotta go to the locker room and talk to them again.”
Nunn, who won nomination with 75 percent of the vote in the Democrats’ May 20 primary, had raised $6.6 million and had $3.7 million in cash on hand as of April 30, according to the center.
Prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, are among her contributors, as are billionaires Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News’s parent company, Bloomberg LP.
As they’re doing in Senate races across the country, Republicans will seek to taint Nunn by tying her to President Barack Obama, who lost Georgia in 2012 to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points.
“With my business career, I will prosecute the failed record of the last six years of Barack Obama,” Perdue said in his victory speech.
Democrats will take a page from Kingston and try to turn Perdue’s wealth into a liability.
Perdue “has spent his career tearing apart companies and communities by slashing thousands of jobs in Georgia and across the country and outsourcing jobs to Asia, while walking away with millions for himself,” Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement after the Republican runoff was decided. “It’s clear multi-millionaire David Perdue is only looking out for himself.”
The Georgia race has generated more TV ads than any other U.S. Senate contest besides North Carolina, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Of the 30,233 spots that aired through the cusp of the runoff, Kingston had run the most -- 7,893 -- followed by Perdue with 5,549 and Nunn with 4,412, according to CMAG.
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