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Tom Baxter

A Sonny day in the Senate race

By Tom Baxter

It was a good thing former Gov. Sonny Perdue had his own transportation when he left office in 2011, because he might have had trouble getting a ride.

Critics charged that the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction had marked time in office, with little more to show for his two terms than Go Fish Georgia. Republicans groused that he hadn’t been a “real” Republican; Democrats still regarded him as a turncoat, and a corrupt one at that.

There’s no small irony, then, in the way this year’s Republican Senate primary is shaping up. The two candidates who seem to be making the most headway are those with the closest connection to the former governor: David Perdue, his cousin, and Karen Handel, whose first job in government was as Sonny Perdue’s deputy chief of staff.

Meanwhile Gov. Nathan Deal, who benefited greatly from the relief factor after succeeding Perdue, faces a much tougher re-election campaign than his predecessor, who pounded former Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, garnering nearly 58 percent of the vote.

In the Senate race, the latest InsiderAdvantage  poll has Perdue and Handel nearly tied for the lead. A SurveyUSA poll had Perdue in first, followed by U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston with Handel in third. But Handel showed the greatest momentum from SurveyUSA’s previous poll of the race.

Either way you shake it, it’s remarkable to have both non-Congressional candidates performing so well at the same time. A month or so ago we were talking about whether it would be possible for two of the candidates from Congress to make it into the runoff. Now it’s a question of whether any of them make it.

Without money, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun will never be as successful in the primary as so many Democrats have prayed each night that he would be. U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey has more money and a solid geographic base, but missteps have plagued his campaign so far.

Kingston has the state’s Republican establishment in his corner, and money to put up a lot of folksy ads — but also enough of a voting record to have an attack ad launched against him. If he makes it into a runoff with either outsider, we’ll have a true test of how deep the anti-Washington sentiment is this year.

If Perdue and Handel square off, we can expect to a lot more about Perdue’s unfortunate “high school” gaffe, but that would be only part of a larger battle drawn on class lines. They may not be the same class lines you’d have with a Democrat in the race, but the establishment would gravitate to Perdue and the grassroots and Tea Party activists to Handel.

It’s not entirely coincidental that the two Senate candidates with momentum are those with the closest association to a governor who left office with less than a rousing farewell. It shows for one that there are only a few ways to win, especially in a Republican primary. Perdue and Handel, whatever their differences, have each incorporated elements of Sonny’s style, and his networks, into their campaigns.

You just don’t hear about him much.

I haven’t run down a copy, but I’ve heard that Perdue, referred to simply as “Sonny,” does the narration in a radio ad for his cousin which has aired in south Georgia. V.O. Key would have recognized this as a classic example of “friends and neighbors” politics, and some things haven’t changed much in 75 years. When you consider yourself on a first-name basis with a politician, you’re more forgiving.

He may not have been the most beloved governor by either party, but until someone proves otherwise, Sonny has to be considered as the state’s most capable and successful politician since the state’s shift to the GOP. That will stick in a lot of craws, but the evidence is all around us.

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.



  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia May 6, 2014 4:07 am

    Good column, Mr. Baxter.
    {{{“I haven’t run down a copy, but I’ve heard that Perdue, referred to simply as “Sonny,” does the narration in a radio ad for his cousin which has aired in south Georgia.”}}}
    …Notice that the air featuring Sonny Perdue runs in SOUTH Georgia and NOT in North Georgia.  I guess that because Sonny Perdue is kind of a political liability of sorts in North Georgia where his gubernatorial administration is not remembered all that fondly.Report

  2. Dixies Dew May 6, 2014 12:12 pm

    The Deputy Chief of Staff position with Sonny was not her first job in government. She claims the same title on her resume working for Vice President Dan Quayle’s wife Marilyn when she was still in Washington.Report


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