Gary Wisenbaker Blog
Gary Wisenbaker
Conventional Wisdom and the Georgia GOP Primary
Perdue and Kingston:  July 22 Face Off

The Rise of the Political Outsider

Businessman David Perdue’s recent runoff victory upended conventional thought.  Coffee shop and water cooler conversation has always held: (1) the leader in a general primary is doomed in any runoff; (2) an incumbent, the role played by Congressman Jack Kingston as a 22 year Washington veteran, with monolithic establishment support is unstoppable and (3) money, and the advertising it buys, will seal the deal for whomever has it and spends it.  

Kingston, the runner up in the GOP General Primary, was therefore perfectly poised to take the nomination according to the pundits.  Perdue was in a weak offensive posture, support coalesced around Kingston after the primary, and the Kingston campaign had money to spend. Even polling data had him over Perdue during much of the runoff campaign season.

Georgia Republican voters, however, gave CW the boot when they went to the polls to select their candidate for the United States Senate last Tuesday.  And it is equally clear that the anti-Washington and “outsider” message carried the day for Perdue.

The May 20 General Primary saw 605,355 Republican voters choosing among seven GOP candidates while the Democratic side had only 328,710 voters winnowing through four prospective nominees. (Note One:  Not a very promising start to turning a Red State to a Blue State).  When the dust settled, Perdue garnered 30.64% of the vote to Kingston’s 25.8% and former Secretary of State and former Fulton County Commission Chairman Karen Handel’s 21.96%. 

Perdue’s Atlanta/North Georgia campaign and Kingston’s “southern Georgia strategy”, a testament to a well disciplined and relentless money oriented campaign, got both candidates in a runoff.

Then the pile on began.  Handel, who ran an “outsider” campaign like Perdue, endorsed Kingston as did a plethora of “establishment” (whatever that is) Republicans and incumbent office holders, state and federal.  The Handel endorsement seemed critical as she carried three of the GOP vote rich metro Atlanta counties. The idea was to give Kingston a larger footprint in these counties which, when added to his sure-to-come South Georgia margins, would get him over the finish line.  

But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory speech podium.  

Those Handel voters were anti-Washington voters, just like Perdue’s.  And Handel campaigned that way.  “Of the serious contenders in this race,” she often said, “Three of them are incumbent congressmen and two of us aren’t.  If you like what’s going on in DC, nominate one of them. If not, you have two choices, Handel and Perdue, and here’s why you should vote for me. . . “

It was an effective pitch and nearly got her into the runoff.  

Handel had name recognition and a good performance record in the offices she held many years ago.  The “anybody but a congressman” voter naturally turned to a familiar name in those areas where Perdue was not well known, as evidenced by her plurality wins in those metro counties she carried.  

But the Handel voters were not endorsing her job performance, they were endorsing her run as an “outsider”.  These votes, then, might be categorized as protest votes rather than loyalty votes.  They were not hers to trade in the endorsement marketplace.  Her supporters did not move to Kingston, perhaps feeling that her endorsement belied the sincerity of her “outsider” message.

An anecdotal story lending support to this theory happened in Lowndes County, (Valdosta) Georgia, on runoff election night.  While Lowndes County, and indeed the entire southern half of Georgia, remained a Kingston stronghold in the GOP runoff, the numbers tend to demonstrate that the failure to convert the Handel voters to Kingston was a problem  This, when coupled with Kingston’s inability to duplicate his May 20 South Georgia margins,  resulted in Perdue’s stunning victory.  

Once the polls closed in Lowndes and the votes were tallied on May 20, Kingston chalked up 3,649 votes against Handel’s 617 and Perdue’s 392.  And these were the top three vote getters in the GOP Senate primary, a 70.5% Kingston landslide.  Nine (long) weeks later, those that voted in the July 22 runoff (as well as advanced voters) gave Kingston 3,617 votes, nearly a 1% decline in actual votes but a 78% majority, but a decline nonetheless.  He needed more votes, a larger margin, but they failed to materialize.

Perdue, on the other hand, not only kept his 392 votes but increased it by 623 for a total of 1,015 votes, a 158% increase. An astounding percentage increase. This is a particularly interesting number considering that the sum of the Handel and Perdue May 20 numbers equals 1009, nearly identical to Perdue’s July 22 tally.

Yes, these are small numbers but when applied to 159 counties in various multipliers, it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to get to 8,500 votes, the margin of the Perdue victory statewide.  When only 482,918 votes are cast, it doesn’t take big numbers to get there (Note Two: This is still more votes than cast in the Democratic Primary on May 20; see previous Note One)

Many would opine that this should have been a cakewalk for Kingston, a likeable, seasoned and disciplined career politician.  Others might take the position that his experience, perhaps along with a lackluster list of legislative achievements over his 10 years in the Georgia Legislature and 22 years in the Congress, spelled his doom.

The simple fact is that it just came down to the mood of the voters.  Like Howard Beal in the 1976 movie classic “Network”, they’re “not going to take it anymore.” They’ve had it with electing people to office who promise change but deliver either nothing or make matters worse.

David Perdue capitalized on that sentiment and rode it to victory.  He articulated a measured and reasoned argument that he is the answer to that frustration.  That assurance, but more importantly the sincerity of that assurance, got him over the finish line last Tuesday.

The Democrats picked up on the voters’ mood as well.  Their leadership looked outside the rank and file of elected Democrats, and tapped Ms. Nunn-Martin, a community organizer, to carry their banner in the US Senate race.  

Whatever happens in November, this race is one for the history books already. At no time in recent memory have both major parties nominated candidates who have no prior experience in elective office.  While Democrat Nunn-Martin is the daughter of a former US Senator from Georgia, she has never held, nor run for, political office.  The same holds true for Perdue who is the cousin of a recent former Georgia governor.

So order up another cup of java and pull out another paper cup, there’s a new set of rules to write twixt now and November.

© 2014 Gary M. Wisenbaker.  All rights reserved.
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