Duking it out in Georgia Senate race

The Republican battle for Georgia’s Senate seat has gotten nastier in the final days of the campaign, creating angst in the GOP.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and businessman David Perdue (R) have been trading heavy blows on the air in the race’s final weeks, depleting their campaign coffers ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.

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“They’ve been beating the crap out of each other,” said Georgia-based Republican strategist Chip Lake, who is neutral in the contest.

While they duke it out, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn is raising huge sums of money. That has some Republicans nervous about a seat that’s a likely must-win if the GOP hopes to retake the Senate majority this fall.

Georgia observers say Perdue has scratched and clawed his way back into the race, after Kingston jumped out to an early lead in the primary runoff, beating up the “career politician” in ads focusing on his more than two decades in Congress and ties with the “pro-amnesty” Chamber of Commerce.

Kingston has been fighting back, criticizing Perdue on the details of his business career and policy positions. His latest ad depicts Perdue as a mannequin, claiming he’s “out of touch with our conservative values.”

Georgia Republicans are confident that whoever wins the primary will be favored this fall, and they say the Perdue-Kingston match-up is the best they could have hoped for out of a crowded field filled with more flawed candidates. But many admit the highly charged runoff campaign could be damaging.

The few recent public polls show a tightening race, with Kingston holding a lead in the single digits. Both GOP campaigns say they expect a photo finish.

There are also few reliable public polls of the general election, but most have found Nunn ahead of or within striking distance of both of her Republican foes.

“In the closing days here as David Perdue has gone up on TV and the hits have gotten pretty hard between the two of them, this race has definitely tightened up. This is going to be a close race one way or the other,” said Joel McElhannon, another neutral Georgia Republican strategist.

Nunn has brought in $3.5 million over the last three months, more than Kingston and Perdue combined during the same period, and has $2.3 million in the bank as of the end of June, to Kingston’s $1.2 million and Perdue’s $800,000. Perdue has the ability to self-fund and Kingston is close to the business community, but it’s clear she’ll have the early cash advantage.

“When she turns in fundraising numbers like she did, obviously that’s concerning and frustrating,” one Georgia Republican said. 

All three candidates have had some missteps.

Kingston recently raised the prospect of impeaching President Obama and has since repeatedly refused to say whether he thinks it should be on the table. Perdue has made tin-eared comments on taxes and Common Core education standards that are appearing in Kingston’s ads. Nunn has squirmed and dodged when asked if she would have voted for ObamaCare.

Republicans are itching to get through Tuesday and rally around their nominee. They argue things will shift quickly once the spotlight is on Nunn, who’s kept a relatively low profile so far.

“I’ll give Michelle credit, she’s focused on raising money and has kept her head low,” McElhannon said. “The hurdle she’s not going to be able to overcome is, this race is going to get focused on two people next week — her and the Republican — and focused on the direction of the country and control of the U.S. Senate.”

Georgia remains a tough state for Democrats, and Obama is deeply unpopular there. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama lost the state to GOP candidate Mitt Romney by nearly 8 points.

But Nunn’s allies say the former charity executive and daughter of popular former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is well-positioned.

Democrats will attack Perdue and Kingston on many of the things they’ve been hitting each other on.

“They’re making general election contrasts for us,” one Nunn ally said. 

Democrats plan to paint Perdue as a heartless corporate raider, hitting him for jobs he outsourced and people he laid off. They would frame Kingston as a Washington insider who’s more interested in the perks of the office than in solving the problems facing the country.

Meanwhile, Georgia Republicans are also increasingly worried about Gov. Nathan Deal’s (R) ethics scandal. Recent polling shows him in a dogfight with his opponent, Democrat Jason Carter.

“Anything that hurts Deal hurts all Republicans down the ticket,” a Georgia GOP strategist said. 

Republicans remain confident they’ll hold the Senate seat, saying Nunn is an untested candidate who could fall apart once the real race starts. But they admit she has so far run a smart campaign and say a number of factors are helping her.

“There are a lot of undercurrents working in favor of Democrats that we haven’t seen the last few times out,” another Georgia Republican said.

“The Carter boy and the Nunn kid are the cleanest Democratic ticket the Democrats have had in a long time,” said Tom Perdue, a top adviser to retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). “Nunn is an outsider. She is a fresh face. She is a newcomer with a pedigree.”