Sorting out the Ga. Republican Senate candidates

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 22, 2014 

  • MEET THE CANDIDATES

    The Ledger-Enquirer is partnering with WRBL-TV, Columbus State University and PMB Broadcasting to present three debates before the primary election on May 20:

    • Mayor: 7 p.m. April 21, University Hall, Columbus State University’s main campus

    • U.S. Senate, Democratic primary: 7 p.m. April 23, Legacy Hall, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

    • U.S. Senate, Republican primary: 7 p.m. May 10, Legacy Hall, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

COLUMBUS, Ga. -- "The big issue," said Jayne Govar, a Columbus Realtor, "is how can one person make a difference?"

That's the quandary facing Columbus Republican voters this spring, as they sort out the field of Republican Senate candidates who often agree on issues but differ widely in style and temperament.

National eyes are watching this race for clues about how Republicans are voting and thinking. Will Georgia's GOP warm to Rep. Paul Broun, the hardcore, give 'em hell conservative? Or will they favor the more measured, establishment conservatives Reps. Jack Kingston or Phil Gingrey?

Will they turn to one of the non-Washington candidates like former state and local official Karen Handel or businessman David Perdue?

This much is increasingly clear: The clenched-fist ardor that helped the tea party rise in 2010 has cooled, and while candidates and constituents retain the passion for a big Washington shakeup, their tone is gentler.

People might like the views of someone like Broun, but some quickly rule him out. "He's in office," explained John House, a Midland college teacher.

Republican voters do agree they're seeking two qualities: Someone who can win and who can shake up Washington.

"I keep going back and forth," said Jenny Eckman, a Columbus Republican activist. "You can find something wrong with every one of them."

Fire-and-brimstone candidates, helped by the grassroots Tea Party movement, won 2010 and 2012 Republican Senate nominations in other states but in some cases lost general elections because they were seen as too extreme.

The next Georgia senator will succeed the genteel Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. Broun fights suspicions he's too rough for the general electorate.

"There's a side of him that's off the rails," said Douglas Deal, a Macon software developer. He cited Broun, a physician, telling a Georgia church group in 2012, "All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell."

During a campaign stop at the Hilton Garden Inn in Columbus last week, Broun told the Ledger-Enquirer in an interview, "I'm not extreme at all. I'm an original constitutionalist." The reason Republicans often lose, he said, is that true conservatives get disgusted with more centrist party candidates and stay home.

Broun plays particularly well with the frustrated right. His AR-15 assault rifle giveaway contest drew an estimated 100,000 people, and his campaign is now conducting a second contest.

Broun vowed to shake up Washington, even if it means alienating fellow Republicans. "Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives are just as guilty," he told the dozen Republicans who came to hear him in Columbus. "I see it as my job to educate the American people about what government is supposed to be."

Broun's pitch was well-received. Kathryn Hightower, a Columbus mechanical engineer, liked his military background -- he's a Marine who was deployed to Afghanistan.

But he didn't seal the deal with everyone. "I like his values," said Govar, "but I'm still undecided."

Kingston counters with a calmer approach. "I don't think yelling and screaming gets things done," he told the Ledger-Enquirer.

His address to the Rotary Club at LaGrange's Highland Country Club last week was full of talk about unity, the kind of reasonable dialogue some Republicans are eager to hear. "He can attract voters other Republicans can't," said Shirley Pennebaker, a LaGrange education consultant.

Bill Stump, a local bank president, asked Kingston how his points are any different from anyone else's. "When you hear these speeches one at a time, they agree on the same things," Stump said.

Look at my record, Kingston urges. He doesn't inch away from his Washington resume -- he's held top positions on spending panels overseeing agriculture, defense, health, education and retirement security issues.

He tries to deflect the not-conservative-enough charge with ads saying he has the race's most conservative voting record. The National Journal's 2013 ratings say yes, but the American Conservative Union's ratings put him below Broun but ahead of Gingrey.

An obstetrician/gynecologist, Gingrey is particularly critical of the Affordable Care Act. "The president's government takeover of the health care industry threatens tens of thousands of private practices with the very real possibility they could have to close their doors," he told constituents recently, "leaving their long-time patients without a place to turn."

The wild cards are the candidates without Washington ties. Republican voter Bart Tharpe is a retired Macon postal employee who contributed $88,000 to his pension fund over 34 years. He retired three years ago at 52, and figures if he lives to be 92 he'll draw about $3 million in pension money.

"I know these numbers don't work," he said. "Someone has to pay for this."

He'd be willing to take a cut if it went across the board, and figured Perdue, a former Dollar General chief executive officer, understands that logic. Perdue emphasizes his independence from Washington and its ways, and it resonates in some quarters.

"He's a businessman, and we sure don't need any more lawyers," Tharpe said.

Handel said she offers a personal touch. A former Georgia secretary of state and commission chairman in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some of its suburbs, she lost a close Republican primary race for governor in 2010. Handel in an interview said she'll stand out from the pack because of "a track record of getting conservative results in a tough environment," as well as a well-honed grassroots network and personal friendships from her previous runs.

Handel also stirred strong interest among women during a Macon Republican discussion organized by McClatchy. Chances are the winner of this primary will face Democrat Michelle Nunn. The daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, she is trying to emulate his centrist ways and has the potential to raise plenty of money.

A woman vs. woman race, Republicans are convinced, gives them a special edge. Nunn is the scion of a prominent family. Handel is self-made.

"You look at her and think if she can do it, I can do it. She worked her way up in a competitive male world," said Sherrie Wallace, a Macon government contractor.

Democrats scoffed. Gender doesn't matter, they said. "When do you stand up for something that relates to my success?" asked Kim Carter, a Macon school administrator.

For now, Republicans have other concerns, notably trying to separate themselves from a pack, and no one really has any magic way of doing that. They know this much, said Eckman. "This is difficult."

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