Kingston’s in the Senate race, and he won’t be outflanked

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston has a message for his conservative challengers for an open Senate seat: He won’t be outflanked on the right.

In announcing Wednesday that he’s joining the race for retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat, the Savannah Republican told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s a workhorse who “will yield no ground to any of my opponents as to who is the most conservative.”

Yet he also made clear that he’s willing to cross party lines for the greater good, a strategy he hopes will distinguish himself from the growing field in the running for the coveted seat.

“I have a conservative voting record, but I come from an area that’s not necessarily Republican,” he said of his southeast Georgia district, which is almost one-third minority voters. “And I can work with the other party and do that without selling out our philosophy.”

Kingston’s announcement makes the race for Chambliss’ seat in 2014 a three-way scramble against U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun. The field could continue to grow, as U.S. Rep. Tom Price, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue are said to be weighing runs.

Some Republicans worry the primary could become so divisive and costly that a Democrat such as U.S. Rep. John Barrow, who is also considering a bid, has a strong chance against the eventual nominee. Some also fear that Broun’s far-right positions and fiery comments might prove particularly troublesome in a general election.

Kingston had a message for them, too.

“I think a Democrat has a shot under certain circumstances — if we come out of the primary divided and broke and bloody,” he said. “If I’m the nominee, a Democrat will not have that shot.”

The 58-year-old was first elected in 1992, making him the longest-serving Republican member of Georgia’s congressional delegation. He grew up in Athens and graduated from the University of Georgia before moving to Savannah to work as an insurance executive.

His foremost challenges include raising the millions of dollars needed to run an effective primary and boosting his name recognition in metro Atlanta by separating himself from the crowd. He seeks to achieve the latter by emphasizing his push for deepening Savannah’s port, a top priority for Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, as well as his efforts to cut spending and protect Georgia military bases from closing.

A liability for some conservatives is Kingston’s longtime service on the House Appropriations Committee. Though he has disavowed the practice of “earmarking” — members of Congress directing funds to specific projects — and mounted a failed 2010 bid as a more conservative alternative to be chairman of the committee, Kingston does have ties to the pork-barrel politics of old.

Kingston views his South Georgia base as a distinct advantage. Georgia’s political center of gravity has shifted toward the upper third of the state, and Chambliss’ departure only heightens that tension. Kingston said Georgia needs a candidate from outside that center to represent voters from the “Folkston Funnel to Lookout Mountain.”

“The much easier route would be to continue where I am and enjoy life in the House,” he said. “But the battleground for the soul of America is in the Senate, and we’ve got to have people in there who are willing to make the tough votes.”

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Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.

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