Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) has the momentum against businessman David Perdue (R) and is close to giving Republicans the Senate nominee they’ve long wanted.
But questions about shady campaign donations could still roil the race ahead of the July 22 runoff and November general election.
And the 11-term congressman has led Perdue by double-digit margins in the few public polls of the race. Democrats privately admit that if he’s the nominee, he’ll be tough for former charity executive Michelle Nunn (D) to beat.
While Kingston has the momentum, a December fundraiser with a foreign national who served jail time could come back to haunt him.
How that story plays out could go a long way in determining whether Kingston remains the front-runner in both the primary and general elections.
Georgia is a top pickup opportunity this election cycle, and if Democrats pull the upset, the GOP’s hopes of winning Senate control take a hit.
After the May 20 primary, Kingston won the backing of the two candidates who finished behind him in the race, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R), as well as from a number of other members of Georgia’s congressional delegation. He also won endorsements from former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, a leading Tea Party voice in the state who backed Handel in the first round.
“Kingston has seized the momentum right now. He’s definitely putting some points on the board,” said Georgia Republican strategist Joel McElhannon.
The Chamber of Commerce has continued to spend heavily on his behalf. Local and national Tea Party groups have indicated that, while they don’t love Kingston’s record as an appropriator, they’re unlikely to jump into the race to help Perdue, who they also view with skepticism.
“While conservatives and Tea Party folks would probably have rather had a different candidate than Kingston, with these two, they’re choosing the devil they know over the devil they don’t,” says Georgia Republican strategist Chip Lake, who’s not affiliated with either campaign.
Kingston has led Perdue by double-digit margins in nearly every public poll since the runoff began.
The race is just starting to re-engage — both candidates have been off the air since the first round but are set to launch ads on Wednesday.
Kingston’s first ad ties Perdue to companies whose boards he served on that took stimulus money and for his membership with the National Retail Federation, which backed immigration reform that Kingston’s campaign paints as “amnesty.” Perdue’s new ad attacks Kingston as a big-spending Washington insider, saying his “22 years of liberal spending has to stop.”
Perdue’s campaign argues, once the air war heats up, he’ll retake the lead, but he’ll have to find a way to shake up the race if he wants to have a chance in the late July runoff.
But Kingston’s lead has some Democrats nervous. Many had hoped the GOP would nominate a fundamentally flawed candidate, like Gingrey or Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). Now, many would prefer to face Perdue and not Kingston.
They also say that, while Nunn has run a strong race overall, raising huge sums and avoiding any major errors, she’s shown some first-time-candidate jitters. She struggled to answer whether she would have voted for ObamaCare in an interview with MSNBC and missed an opportunity to call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head in a Democratic debate just days before many others in her party threw him under the bus.
“Jack Kingston is the guy that Democrats don’t want, and it’s looking more and more like it’s going to be him. It’s going to be very difficult for Michelle Nunn to go up against,” said one Georgia Democrat.
While Kingston seems to be in the driver’s seat, he faces investigations into a December fundraiser organized by Khalid Satary, a Palestinian national who served jail time and the U.S. government has sought to deport.
Kingston immediately returned the $80,000 when allegations became public that employees of Satary’s company had been given bonuses and asked to donate that money to his campaign. He has denied any knowledge of Satary’s three-year stint in prison for music piracy and subsequent efforts to deport him until the news was made public. Atlanta print and TV outlets have been giving the story extensive coverage.
“When troubling details were brought to our attention we returned the funds. We were not legally required to do so or forced to do so; it was a decision Jack made to make sure this wasn’t a distraction. If people try to politicize this, most people will see that for what it is,” Kingston campaign manager Chris Crawford told The Hill.
But a Republican attorney in the state representing one of the company’s unhappy former employees has said he met with Kingston’s campaign attorney on May 1 to warn them about Satary and the potentially illegal contributions. Kingston’s campaign didn’t return the donations until weeks later, after being asked about them by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That newspaper reports that there is an ongoing federal investigation into whether Satary broke the law with the donations, though the paper says Kingston is not a target of the investigation.
“We had the meeting. We were told there was an internal dispute at the company. But the conviction and his immigration status were not brought up there. That is not the information that we got in the meeting,” Crawford said.
Republicans say they don’t think the story has stuck with voters yet but warn that, if more details emerge, it could damage Kingston’s campaign.
“It’s a story that requires Kingston to give a full response, and so far, I’m not sure he’s done that. I have every confidence though that, by the time we get through the runoff, it will be addressed one way or the other — either Kingston is going to lose, or he’ll come up with a really good answer to it,” said McElhannon. “There’s legitimate criticism to how Kingston has handled this issue so far.”
Democrats Remain Hopeful
Democrats admit they would have preferred Broun, Gingrey or Handel in the runoff, and many say they’d prefer that Perdue beats Kingston, believing his long business record will allow them to paint him as an out-of-touch corporate vulture in much the same way they damaged GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
They say Nunn is running a strong campaign and insist the ongoing donor problems for Kingston, on top of his decades in Washington, give them an opening to argue she’s in a better position to change Washington.
“There’s a pathway for Michelle Nunn against either candidate who emerges from this battered and bloody runoff,” Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said. “I think Perdue is more Romney-like than Kingston. … And the question for Republicans is do they want to nominate Jack Kingston if this donor stuff heats up?”
But some privately admit that even with Kingston’s baggage, he’ll still be tough to beat if he wins the primary.
“If it is Perdue, I think there’s a path, not as good as against Broun or Gingrey or Handel, but there is a path,” said another Georgia Democrat. “If Jack Kingston is the nominee it’s a difficult slog — he’s a more mainstream candidate, the business establishment and elites will fall behind him.”