The TV ads get the attention, but as David Perdue and Jack Kingston circle the state ahead of Tuesday’s U.S. Senate Republican runoff, both are emphasizing the politics of the personal.
Turnout is expected to be 10 percent or lower, giving each handshake and social media post greater import. And while both men have worked every corner of the state, they are spending the most time in metro Atlanta and parts north to mine an area thick with Republican voters.
“If you study runoffs in Georgia, there’s no pattern to who wins,” said Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General, at a recent campaign stop in northwest Georgia. “If you finish first or second, it doesn’t matter. But the one constant is motivated people win. When you call people and tell them who you’re voting for, it matters to them.”
Kingston tells crowds that posting a photo of themselves with the 11-term Savannah congressman on Facebook is far more effective than his TV ads.
“What we’re trying to do as much as possible is a lot of email, a lot of Facebook and getting the party enthusiasts out telling their friends — word of mouth — with the hope that overcomes some of the negative ads,” Kingston said.
John Konop, of Canton, said he was still trying to make up his mind — and coming away dispirited.
“I hear talking points on both sides and I don’t hear anything of substance from either one,” he said. “I’m a regular voter but it is frustrating because I’m having a hard time distinguishing what they’re really going to do.”
Kingston and Perdue are running to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. Tuesday’s winner faces Democratic nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn of Atlanta in what is expected to be a nationally watched race.
Perdue won the most votes in the May 20 primary, claiming 30 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate race. He was particularly popular in north Georgia, winning most of the mountain counties and even besting primary opponents U.S. Reps. Paul Broun of Athens and Phil Gingrey of Marietta in their own congressional districts. Perdue also was popular near his boyhood home of Warner Robins.
Kingston, meanwhile, captured enormous margins in areas he has represented in Congress. He won his coastal First Congressional District with 74.8 percent of the vote. Perdue, who now lives in the district in Sea Island, was second there with 10.5 percent. Kingston also won two neighboring South Georgia districts, parts of which he represented before redistricting.
“It wasn’t a surprise that Jack did well in south Georgia - the surprise was the margin,” said GOP strategist Chip Lake, who is not aligned with either runoff candidate. “David Perdue probably has an advantage in the northern part of the state, but he’s not going to have the margins Jack will in the south. And that makes for a competitive, close race that could be decided within a point or two.”
In the primary Kingston’s south Georgia margins were enough to overcome former Secretary of State Karen Handel’s metro Atlanta strength. Handel, of Roswell, has endorsed Kingston in the runoff and has been an energetic backer, urging her donors to give to Kingston, hitting the campaign trail for him and even offering a homemade concoction to soothe Kingston’s weary throat when his voice failed him.
“I want to be helpful in consolidating some of the votes that I won - that can hopefully be the difference in the race,” she said. “The southern strategy is going to be important, but Jack’s not forgetting about metro Atlanta.”
On Saturday at a small meet-and-greet with activists and local Republican officials at a supporter’s home in Canton, Kingston praised Handel as the “cornerstone” of his effort in the final days. He talked up his longtime service to the state and deep knowledge of the grassroots — combined with attacks on Perdue as a Johnny-come-lately.
As Cherokee County state Reps. Scot Turner and Michael Caldwell looked on, Kingston joked that he could quicker name the members of the General Assembly who hadn’t endorsed him than list the ones who have. Mayors and other local officials have been helpful in working their networks throughout the state, said campaign manager Chris Crawford.
Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, does not have the deep institutional ties of his rival — and eschews them as he styles himself the “outsider” candidate.
Perdue is pitching himself to voters like Jim Armstrong, a GOP activist in northeast Georgia’s Jackson County. Armstrong is willing to take a chance on the newcomer.
“The way I see it, it doesn’t matter whether or not Perdue is from the area. It’s about the issues,” said Armstrong. “And it’s more about the issues than ever in this race.”
Perdue wrapped up a 11-day, 51-stop RV tour of the state on Saturday. In an early-morning drizzle in Tucker he professed confidence.
“I’m very excited about where we are,” Perdue said. “It’s tight but we’ve got momentum. And we’re going to shock some people Tuesday. There’s some power brokers who are really throwing their weight and money around. And it’s not sticking.”
This year’s timing makes the contest even more unpredictable than usual.
Georgia primaries have long been held in July and runoffs three weeks later in the dead of August. But a federal judge’s ruling forced lawmakers to shift the primary to May - and build in an unprecedented nine-week lag for the runoff.
“We don’t have any baseline because this is the first time in Georgia history we’ve had a primary this long,” Lake said.
The confusion can be palpable on the trail. Kingston spent Saturday evening roaming tailgates in the Turner Field parking lots before the Braves game.
He approached a quartet of friends from Alpharetta who proclaimed they were undecided Republicans. Kingston chatted for a few minutes and left them with business cards.
After Kingston departed, Tim McLaughlin sounded like he was leaning toward Kingston.
“He’s a congressman, so he knows how to work things,” McLaughlin said.
Then he asked about the election. “It’s Aug. 24, right?”
Told Election Day is Tuesday, McLaughlin let out an expletive. He will be out of town and unable to vote.
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