How Red Can You Get?

Georgia’s GOP Senate candidates are racing each other to the far right.

Karen Handel, David Perdue

Karen Handel, left, and David Perdue during the Georgia U.S. Senate debate, in April.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

KENNESAW, Georgia—The last great public battle between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment happened a few hours away from here, right over the Georgia–Florida border. One month ago, the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership decamped to Amelia Island for its annual retreat. Tea Party activists, furious at the presence of Republican leaders like Rep. Eric Cantor, followed them down. Gadsden-flag-wavers from northeast Florida and southeast Georgia gathered outside the meeting to shame them.

“We surrounded the place,” remembers William Temple. “Over the whole weekend they had to look out of their windows at rattlesnake flags!”

Eventually, the scene irritated former Rep. Steve LaTourette so much that the RMSP’s president stormed outside to get in Temple’s face. His might be the most famous citizen face in the Tea Party. Temple, a pastor in Brunswick, Georgia, shows up to an unbelievable number of conservative events in full Revolutionary War garb. A reporter searching for a generic photo of a “Tea Partier” usually plumps for one of Temple, waving his flag and bellowing “huzzah” after a Michele Bachmann zinger.

“So am I a traitor?” LaTourette asked Temple. “Am I a traitor?”

“I told him, if you’re supporting this PAC, you’re a traitor,” remembers Temple. “We’ve got all your faces. We know who you all are.”

But the Georgia Tea Party doesn’t know who its Senate candidate is. Last year, as soon as Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement, conservatives saw a chance to replace a deal-cutting, TARP-supporting Republican with one of their own. Georgia had produced William Temple, Tea Party Patriots, and the entire political career of Herman Cain—why shouldn’t it have a Tea Party senator? What did it matter if the Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn, was polling unusually well? Rep. Paul Broun, who describes himself as being “Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” jumped into the race. So did Rep. Phil Gingrey, a reliable vote against any compromise in the House and a reliable sponsor of anti-Obamacare legislation.

Both have faded in the stretch. In the campaign’s final week, Broun and Gingrey are burning their cash on TV ads and making appearances at friendly venues. Democrats, who had hoped to see one of them make the July runoff, now concede that the first round of the race will come down to 20-year Rep. Jack Kingston, wealthy businessman David Perdue, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Gingrey is closing by accusing Handel of “promoting teenage homosexuality” in her days as chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

Broun is going out with a playlist of everything he’s failed to achieve since coming to Congress in 2007. At a Tuesday night meeting of the Canton Tea Party, Broun waved his pocket Constitution in the air and declared that he only put it down when he was “in the shower.”

“Let’s close down the Department of Education and get rid of Common Core once and for all,” said Broun. “And while we’re closin’ down things, y’all, let’s close down the EPA also. We’ve got to get the heavy boot of the EPA off of our economy. And while we’re shutting down things, y’all, let’s shut down the IRS also!”

Broun and Gingrey have their adherents, and some loyalty in the districts they’ve represented since 2007 and 2003. After a Republican Party dinner in Rome, Georgia—Handel was there, and Kingston sent his son John as a surrogate—local activist Mickey Tuck said he was sticking with Broun as long as he could.

“I’m kind of a Republican-leaning, libertarian—stand with Rand,” said Tuck. “Broun’s always been voting conservative. The other two congressmen changed their votes once they started running this year.”

That’s the important part of the Broun/Gingrey fade—their politics have been passed on to the front-runners, who were plenty conservative to start with. It hasn’t even been four years since Republicans won the House and conservatives lobbied for Kingston to take over the Appropriations Committee on the theory that he’d be a reliable spending-slasher. It was just two years ago that Handel resigned from Susan G. Komen for the Cure after she’d cut the group’s ties to Planned Parenthood and progressives rose up in a fury. David Perdue? On Friday, Herman Cain used his radio show to declare (in the third person, as is his wont) that Perdue “looks like a mirror image of Herman Cain.”

The front-runners, bereft of true ideological differences, are closing out the race with appeals to different cultures. Each is traversing the state’s population centers in a campaign bus, packing in as many meet-and-greets as they can stand. Handel started her tour on Tuesday, at a diner in the north Atlanta suburb of Roswell. As they shuffled in and ordered coffee, Handel’s supporters could grab fliers that portrayed her congressional opponents as incompetent frauds and Perdue as an “elitist.” It had been more than a month since Perdue had dismissed Handel as a “high school graduate,” less able to understand the complexities of government than a world-traveler like him. It had been more than a month since he apologized. Handel kept battering him with the quote anyway.

“I’m proud of the fact that I was able to overcome long odds,” said Handel. “I’m proud of the fact that a lot of Georgians did the same thing.” As she talked, a supporter pointed out to me that 58 percent of Georgians lacked college degrees.

“If we don’t win in November—or we win with another go-along-to-get-along, or an elitist establishment type—we haven’t accomplished a thing,” said Handel. “Who’s gonna take it to Michelle Nunn, y’all? We know we need to cut the spending. We know we need to get the economy going by cutting taxes and cutting regulation.”

After a short speech, Handel stuck around the diner to talk to explain why her story made her electable, and her rivals’ “elitism” would lead to doom.

“Look at the headlines that they’ve already generated,” she said. “Jack Kingston: Poor children should sweep the floor. Look at the narrative around David Perdue: His disdain for people who don’t have a college degree and haven’t been overseas, that they aren’t smart enough. Gingrey, Broun …” She paused and laughed. “Do I need to go into that?”

She really didn’t. Later that day, more than 100 miles down the road, Perdue’s bus pulled into the parking lot of Jackson’s, a seafood restaurant just across the water from a coal plant that—as several patrons pointed out—was being shut down by the EPA. He worked the room as his potential voters snacked on ceviche and mussels, then he paused for a short, relatable speech.

“How many of you know someone who’s out of work?” he asked. His hand went up—so did most everyone else’s. “I’ll tell ya, it’s a problem. One out of five Americans is unemployed or underemployed. You go to Atlanta, you don’t see it, but you go around the state and you see it a lot.”

After the speech, Perdue strolled over to the reporter in the room to rebut the latest charges against him. He didn’t favor tax hikes; he’d been telling the newspaper in Macon that he favored “revenue,” and politicians misunderstood him. He wasn’t an elitist. “We could retire four career politicians in this race,” he said. “The federal reserve has put several trillion dollars into the economy and the economy’s really not growing,” he said.

But the “high school degree” story has been hard to erase. Candidates like Perdue or Cain happily rip into “politicians” as know-nothings and meddlers. Whenever Perdue talked about those politicians, he couldn’t help but point out that they weren’t that smart.  “You have people in political leadership who don’t have a lot of experience in the free enterprise system,” he said. Could Georgia’s coasts withstand climate change? Sure, the right people could figure it out. Alas: “The EPA is really overreaching and damaging entire industries. We’ve got to get some common sense back in Washington—in science, there’s an active debate going on.”

Back in the Atlanta suburbs, in the downtown plaza of Douglassville, Jack Kingston was taking an even softer tone. His pitch, in ads and in person, was that he was incredibly, personally thrifty. He rode to events in a Buick Roadmaster with 279,000 miles on the speedometer and a paint job chipping like some ancient church fresco. Some campaign aides followed in an RV, but it was the Roadmaster that voters recognized from TV. “I’m the only one in this race who’s cut the budget,” said Kingston to a few dozen assembled voters and dignitaries.

He didn’t say much more about what he’d cut. Kingston huddled for a little while with Terry Baggett, a retired air force colonel who wanted Kingston to keep funding the A-10 Thunderbolt. It was an old, “tank-killing” plane, one that the Obama administration had put on the block to save money, but the veteran didn’t want to see it go.

“I’ve represented five out of our eight military installations,” Kingston told the crowd. “I don’t ever want America’s service men and women to have to fight a fair fight. I want them to be the best trained and best equipped so that they can go to any place and we know what the outcome will be.”

Kingston wasn’t running as moderate. No one was. He had the Chamber of Commerce behind him, which made it impossible for him to run as “the Tea Party candidate,” but even William Temple said he could support Kingston in the fall. Kingston, like the rest of this year’s “establishment” candidates, was running as far to the right as he could. He just wasn’t going to give Democrats as much to work with as poor Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey.

The Democrats had not given up hope. Wherever he traveled, Kingston was trailed by liberal video trackers—an honor not given to Broun or Gingrey or Handel. “They’re with Morning Joe,” said Kingston, pointing at an NBC crew who’d followed him to Douglassville. He pointed at the trackers. “They’re with George Soros.”

As Kingston walked the plaza, a towering volunteer in brown cowboy boots hoisted a KINGSTON sign. The trackers moved, and he moved his sign in front of them. “Ever play cat-and-mouse?” he asked a former local GOP chairman who was watching the dance. After the meet-and-greet, Kingston ducked inside city hall for an interview. The tracker was blocked at the door; the aide and the former chairman exchanged a quick high-five.