Republicans are increasingly concerned about Georgia's Senate race, where a crowded primary threatens to produce a flawed candidate who could put at risk a seat in a Republican-leaning state.
Recent polling shows the two candidates Republicans are most anxious about — Reps. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) — leading the pack. Whoever emerges from the clown-car primary, with seven candidates and counting, will face a candidate Democrats are high on in a state where shifting demographics benefit their party.
“Gingrey has a history of making some gaffes, and Broun it seems like it's a gaffe every other day. Those are the two that worry Republicans the most as potential problems going into the general election,” said Georgia Republican strategist Joel McElhannon, who’s neutral in the race.
Georgia Republicans say they have the upper hand in the race to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in a state where President Obama won 45 percent of the vote in 2012. But they voice concern over a number of potential scenarios in a primary that’s anyone’s for the taking.
Nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn (D), the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has a clear Democratic field and is positioning herself as an economically centrist problem solver. While she’s an untested candidate, Democrats are excited about her profile, and she ran slightly ahead of or even with every Republican in a recent poll conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.
The scenario that panics Republicans is Broun winning the nomination. The Tea Party-affiliated congressman has generated controversy by calling evolution and the big bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell” and routinely referring to President Obama as a socialist.
He has some strong support in the GOP base and sports a perfect rating with the deep-pocketed, fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which could give him a big financial boost if they decide to get involved in the race. Many think they might, especially if Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a longtime appropriator with a more centrist record, makes the two-candidate runoff.
Broun is the underdog — he’s far behind in the money race, and many believe his rhetoric will disqualify him with enough Georgia Republicans. Broun had $400,000 in the bank and sat in second place with 19 percent support in PPP’s recent poll.
But he could hurt the field without winning the nomination by pushing the rest of the field hard right.
“The political elite may not like everything Paul Broun says, but Georgia voters support the way he votes,” a Broun campaign spokeswoman emailed to The Hill. “The other candidates are running to be Paul Broun, their problem is that Paul Broun is going to be on the ballot."
Kingston is off to a strong fundraising start, and many Republicans believe would be the safest general-election candidate. He has promised to “yield no ground to any of my opponents as to who is the most conservative.”
Broun introduced a “No amnesty” bill earlier this week that would bar any legal status for immigrants who are in the country illegally. Two days later, Kingston sent a campaign email with the subject line “stopping tax credits for illegal immigrants.”
Eric Tanenblatt, a Georgia strategist who advised and was national finance co-chair for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, says he’s worried the candidates haven’t acknowledged the state’s shifting demographics. Georgia has fast-growing African-American and Hispanic populations and a large number of younger voters moving in from across the country.
“Georgia is changing, and the further you go to the right in the primary, the more difficult that becomes in the general,” he says. “If we're not careful, we could create an unfortunate situation for ourselves.”
Another Georgia Republican strategist pointed to recent votes on the Farm Bill and some appropriations bills as evidence Broun was already having an impact on the race.
“All of the candidates better be careful that they stick to their own values and not be driven to the hard right because of one candidate in the race,” she said.
Gingrey could also win the primary — he led in PPP’s poll with 25 percent support and has $2.6 million in the bank. While Republicans aren’t as nervous about him as Broun, he has his own history of gaffes: The obstetrician said former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) infamous remarks about rape and abortion were “partly right,” though he later apologized for the comment, and recently called for grade-school classes to teach children about traditional gender roles.
Sources close to Gingrey say he knows he’s made mistakes and is focused on being a more disciplined candidate, and many believe if he continues to make gaffes, he won’t be the nominee. But surviving the primary without a gaffe doesn’t mean he won’t slip up during the general election.
Some Republicans are wary a nasty primary could hurt their nomine, pointing to Senate candidate and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel’s (R) hard-charging campaign style.
Handel and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) faced off in a particularly nasty 2010 primary — on the eve of the election, after some harsh criticism lobbed by Deal’s campaign, Handel called him a “corrupt relic of Washington.”
She seems to be following a similar playbook this cycle. Her campaign’s website, onlyinwashingtondc.com, is a laundry list of “42 ridiculous things that happen only in Washington.”
“On primary day the three congressmen in this race will have spent a combined 42 years in Washington. 42 years? That’s just way too long! We need a proven conservative outsider, with a record of achieving conservative results,” Handel says on the site.
“Hopefully, they can keep the shots above the belt and keep it somewhere civil,” said one strategist in the state who said Handel “refused to do anything to help Deal and was very critical of him” in 2010 and is “already taking swings at folks and being aggressive.”
“Karen is tough in defending her principles … and there's a real hunger for people who'll be more concerned about what’s right than running for the next election,” Handel campaign manager Corry Bliss told The Hill.
Handel is off to a slow fundraising start, raising just $150,000 in her first month of the campaign, but she is the only woman currently running, has high name recognition from her earlier campaigns and could be a serious player in the race.
Businessman David Perdue (R), the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), is also in the race, and has promised to self-fund his campaign. Insiders say many close to Gov. Perdue who backed Handel’s gubernatorial run are now in his cousin’s camp.