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May 16, 2014 11:27 AM Everyone Running to the Starboard Side in Georgia

By Ed Kilgore

As the likely scene for the main election-night drama in next Tuesday’s batch of Republican primaries, the GOP Senate race in my home state of Georgia is now drawing abundant national attention. Manu Raju has written Politico’s preview, and he nicely captures the zeitgeist of a contest that for a good while was nestling comfortably into the Year of the Republican Establishment narrative. As in North Carolina, it’s less remarkable who is winning or losing than that the whole field is tilting heavily to the Right:

The candidates are simultaneously running to the right — questioning the science of climate change, vowing to privatize entitlement programs for future beneficiaries and, in some cases, calling for the self-deportation of undocumented immigrants — and dubbing their opponents sellouts to the conservative cause. It’s the only way to win a crowded GOP primary. But the winner will have to account for those stances in the general election — in a state that favors Republicans but not prohibitively so.

Earlier in the campaign, the most remarkable example of the rightward pull of the primary dynamic was in the messaging of Rep. Jack Kingston, a south Georgia career Congressional appropriator who suddenly sounded like the last hope of the conservative movement, with ads hitting racially resonant “welfare bum” themes, savaging Common Core, and boasting of a dubious National Journal ranking as having “the most conservative [House] record in the field.” But now he’s been joined as a former Establishment driver of the conservative cause by former Secretary of State Karen Handel, a one-time protege of Gov. Sonny Perdue from relatively moderate Fulton County who lost a close gubernatorial runoff to Nathan Deal in 2010 in part because social conservatives demonized her as soft on abortion and gay rights. Rebaptized as a fiery Christian Right champion for her failed effort as an executive of the Komen Foundation to cut off ties with Planned Parenthood, Handel is now trying to compensate for her lack of funds by calling out opponents on ideological grounds, aided by RedState proprietor Erick Erickson (who is a Georgian) and Sarah Palin.

So although the supposed Tea Party favorites in the field, zany Paul Broun (who could never raise money) and flaky Phil Gingrey (who unaccountably sat on a large campaign fund until very late in the contest, and who also faced attacks from a Nebraska-based SuperPac run by Joe Rickettws), don’t appear to have much of a chance of making a certain runoff, the contest, ironically, seems to be preempting their ideological appeal. In his desperation Gingrey has started recycling 2010 oppo research material on Handel from her days as a Fulton County commissioner, when she was allegedly comfy-cozy with Planned Parenthood and LGBT activists.

All in all, it’s not a good environment for front-runner David Perdue. Slate’s Dave Weigel acutely observed after Perdue’s unforced error of letting his tax-hating bona fides come into question that the “businessman outsider” candidate is struggling to learn all the codes to appeal to “constitutional conservatives:”

I caught up with Perdue at a stop on his ongoing bus tour, in the town of Milledgeville, at a seafood restaurant across the water from a coal plant slowly being closed down by regulations. He confirmed that he opposed tax hikes, thought they hurt the economy, and wanted to balance the budget by demolishing “redundant agencies,” not with a tax hike. The “revenue” spat was baffling to him—he’d never thought of “taxes” and “revenue” as synonyms.
“We have the political language and the real-world language,” he said. “In my world, revenue is what you do when you grow businesses. My thesis is: We’re not going to solve this debt crisis until you get the economy growing. If you get the economy growing, you increase the tax base—or as I said, grow revenue—without a tax increase. All this hoopla that’s happened today is over that one comment, but I’ve been saying this for a year.”
Perdue’s opponents portray his “CEO candidate” approach as a liability, as proof that the guy is arrogant and does not color in the lines of conservatism. A Perdue strategist, trying to explain how wrong this was, told me about a moment earlier in the campaign when the candidate was asked whether the Consitution was a “living document.” Hey, he liked the Constitution, and of course it was “alive” and well! He said yes, and a gaffe was born (though didn’t really hurt him), because he didn’t know the lingua franca. It is not enough to agree with a voter. You have to make it sound like you don’t even have the capacity or language to disagree, because if you do, you might wind up at a negotiating table owned by the wrong guys

Perdue’s habit of using “real-world language” doesn’t auger well for a nine-week runoff campaign against (probably) either Kingston or Handel, who have both become accomplished ideological commissars. Given his current pattern of surrender whenever he’s challenged for being an insufficiently savage conservative, and the temptation his campaign will face to exploit Kingston or Handel’s own past heresies, it appears likely the starboard-side pressure of the GOP contest will only increase as Tuesday comes and goes. The eventual winner will probably look and sound a lot like Thom Tillis: an “Establishment” pol who is indistinguishable from the Tea Party hordes.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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