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What to Watch For in Georgia’s Republican Senate Runoff

Georgia’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate will end Tuesday amid accusations of sweetheart deals and donations from criminals. But the Peach State’s runoff — unlike Mississippi’s — doesn’t feature a big ideological struggle; Rep. Jack Kingston and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue are both mainline conservatives.

The bigger story will probably be the general election candidate not on Tuesday’s ballot: Democrat Michelle Nunn. Georgia has been solidly Republican in national elections for more than a decade, but Nunn has led Kingston in eight of 11 polls conducted over the past year. Perdue hasn’t polled much better. Nunn seems to benefitting from a Georgia that has grown more diverse, a golden name (her father was Sam Nunn, the longtime senator), and the dragging out of the GOP primary.

Luckily for Republicans, Kingston and Perdue were seen as the more mainstream candidates in the primary’s first round. They emerged from a field that included the outspoken Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, as well Karen Handel, the Sarah Palin-endorsed former secretary of state. Kingston had the least conservative (though still conservative) congressional record of any of the three congressmen running, and he was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Emphasizing his business background, Perdue campaigned more on the economy than hot-button social issues.

Perdue finished first in the primary with 31 percent. Kingston came in second at 26 percent. But the tables appear to have turned in the runoff.

Kingston has been boosted by endorsements from Gingrey and Handel, as well as from RedState’s Erick Erickson and the National Rifle Association, and he has consistently led in runoff polling. The latest averages from HuffPollster and RealClearPolitics show him with 47 percent. Perdue trails with 42 and 41 percent in those averages, respectively.

And Kingston’s 5 to 6 percentage-point lead will probably stand up.

Past polling in Georgia’ Republican primaries and runoffs has been reasonably accurate. In the 2010 gubernatorial runoff, the polling average was off by less than a percentage point. In the first round of this year’s Senate primary, polling correctly showed Perdue ahead, Kingston in second and Handel in third. Only two candidates (with undecideds allocated proportionally) out of 16 in the past four major statewide GOP primaries have seen an error of more than 3 percentage points from their projected vote percentage and actual vote percentage. Perdue would need that type of error (and in his direction) to win.

For the polls to be wrong, Perdue will probably need to exceed expectations in the Atlanta area. Perdue led Kingston by 17 to 18 percentage points in Cobb (a traditional swing county in Republican primaries), Gwinnett and Fulton counties in the first round; Handel came in first or second in all of these counties. If Perdue is to win the runoff, he’ll need to fight off Handel’s influence and win these counties by potentially upward of 10 points. He’ll be building on his base around Macon, in Bibb and Houston counties in the middle of the state.

Kingston, meanwhile, needs another strong performance in and around his congressional district (the 1st), which includes Savannah. Kingston regularly won 75 percent or more of the vote — and no less than 64 percent — in 30 southeastern counties. More than that, turnout was up in the southeast, while it was down in most of the state. In Chatham, for example, turnout was up 7 percent from the competitive gubernatorial primary four years ago. It was down 11 percent statewide.

If you’re looking for a county to watch, Richmond, which includes Augusta and is in the central-eastern part of the state, could be telling. It’s a buffer zone between Kingston’s sphere of influence in the southeast and Perdue’s core support in central Georgia. Both candidates finished within a point of their statewide vote shares in Richmond in the first round.

But as we said, winning the primary is just half the battle for Kingston and Perdue. We’ll have to wait at least a few weeks to know whether Republican voters will coalesce around the victor. If they don’t, Georgia could feature a very exciting Senate race in the fall.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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