Senate debate hints at a steamy finish

By Tom Baxter

For a few minutes during Sunday night’s U.S. Senate primary runoff debate between David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, the air got about as thick as it has in this entire, long and nasty contest. This was their only televised face-to-face encounter, but it’s possible that in these last humid July days before the vote, things could get hotter still.

“I would have expected a little bit more of you,” Kingston said after Perdue had declared that stories about a problem donor showed the congressman was “open for business.”

But Kingston then proceeded to give as good as he got in the Atlanta Press Club-sponsored forum, accusing his opponent of a “sweetheart deal” when Perdue’s cousin, the governor, named him to the Georgia Ports Authority board while a trucking company he co-owned did business at the facility. He also chided Perdue about the Super PAC which supports him and hasn’t disclosed its contributors.

Talking with reporters in the spin room shortly afterwards, both candidates pushed their charges just a little farther.

“This scandal’s going to break out,” Perdue said, seeming to imply that Kingston might have more questionable contributions to answer for.

“We take FEC complaints extremely seriously,” Kingston said later when questioned about that. He said his office had acted quickly on the complaint concerning Palestinian businessman Khalid Satary, and would continue to act within the law. Then he pushed back a little more on the Super PAC.

“What about Cal Turner?” he said, strongly implying that the former Dollar General CEO who was fined $1 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission was among the undisclosed contributors to Perdue’s Super PAC.

Both candidates were, in other words, talking as if they still had lots of ammunition.

It’s fascinating how the Savannah harbor deepening, that holy grail of public works projects championed by Georgia officials across the political spectrum, has worked its way into the middle of all this mudslinging, with Kingston accusing Perdue of ignoring it while lining his own pockets, and Perdue chiding Kingston for ineffectiveness in winning approval for it. Just a guess, of course, but this might not be the last time this huge money pot becomes the subject of scandal.

In a curious kind of way this primary has been another milestone in the Georgia Republicans’ political takeover of the state: It’s pretty much the kind of primary Democrats used to have.

There was a lot of conservative ideology thrown around before the field got narrowed, but what it boiled down to was a runoff between two different crowds with a lot of money among them, not so different in their politics but highly suspicious of their opponents. It’s not exactly a personality contest, but more like a high school football rivalry.

This is how the Democrats used to sort things out when they didn’t have the Republicans to worry about. The rub, for Republicans, is that they do have the Democrats to worry about. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm with a good track record, released an automated survey Monday which has Michelle Nunn leading both Republicans, as she has in some previous polling.

Summertime polls have a way of melting, so there’s no way to predict how the general election race will shape up after the runoff, but there are enough warning signs to stir concerns about the race among Republicans who don’t have a dog in the fight.

Kingston has a slight lead in the same poll, but the numbers in the runoff polls have sloshed around enough to indicate a close finish next Tuesday. The Republicans will patch things up, most likely, but they will have bloodied each other up as much as Nunn’s campaign could have hoped they would.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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