ATLANTA — Georgia's Republican Senate primary runoff pits a multimillionaire businessman who's never held public office against a congressman who has spent decades on Capitol Hill, and both worked to frame the match to their advantage Wednesday and draw support from three candidates who didn't make the cut.
Former corporate CEO David Perdue and a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue blasted Rep. Jack Kingston as a "career politician" who's already had his chance to tackle challenges such as the $17 trillion national debt. Kingston says Perdue oversells his business record and his conservative credentials.
Their runoff is July 22. Ultimately, the November general election will pit Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn against either Perdue or Kingston in what Democrats call one of their few chances to pick up a GOP Senate seat. Nunn easily won her party's primary on Tuesday.
Perdue said in an interview Wednesday that the Democrats' focus on Georgia is more reason for Republicans to choose him over Kingston. Both Perdue and Nunn have adopted the government outsider mantle, and nominating a sitting congressman would give Nunn an advantage, he argued.
"If you like what's going on in Washington, you've got a perfectly good politician to vote for," Perdue said. "We got to this position because we presented an alternative to a career politician."
Kingston said he's confident his record in Congress will be an advantage, pointing to the split support for Obama and himself during the 2012 election in southern Chatham County.
"I think people would rather have a tested conservative than a moderate outsider," Kingston said.
Both candidates for the July runoff said they reached out to the three runners-up in Tuesday's primary, all with support from the tea party and conservative voters: former Secretary of State Karen Handel and Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun.
Nunn signaled Wednesday that she isn't waiting for a single opponent to go on the attack.
"It's a race to extremes and represents the acrimony and inflexibility that people are tired of already in Washington," the former nonprofit CEO said a day after her primary victory, chatting with voters at an Atlanta diner alongside Mayor Kasim Reed.
She and her aides said that would be her argument regardless of whether she faces Perdue the outsider or Kingston the insider Nov. 4.
The ultimate outcome will help determine which party controls the Senate for President Barack Obama's final two years. Republicans must gain a net of six seats for a Senate majority and can ill afford to lose the Georgia seat opened by Sen. Saxby Chambliss's retirement.
Perdue, the former CEO of Reebok, Dollar General and a North Carolina textile firm called Pillowtex, led seven Republican candidates with 30.6 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. Kingston of Savannah was second with 25.8 percent. Now they start from scratch in a two-month campaign Democrats hope will be expensive and divisive.
Kingston said he plans to reach out to voters who backed Broun, Gingrey and Handel on Tuesday, promising many of them would "find a home with us."
Perdue said Kingston's record in Congress will be central to the runoff campaign.
"We're going to point out the crisis of the day, and what his contribution may or may not have been to rising debt," Perdue said.
Kingston said his record is fair game, but so is Perdue's career.
At an election night event, Kingston recounted Perdue's tenure at Pillowtex, where Perdue presided over layoffs and left the firm months before it closed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's reluctance to support Perdue should be an indication of what the former CEO's record could mean in November, Kingston said Wednesday.
Kingston had about $1 million in advertising support from the powerful organization.
Perdue, a recognized turnaround specialist, notes he took over Pillowtex after a bankruptcy and says the company's eventual downfall resulted from unmanageable pension obligations incurred before his arrival.
Kingston and Perdue made a point of looking beyond the runoff, saying the ultimate prize is to help Republicans regain Senate control.
Both have followed the GOP national strategy of painting Democratic incumbents, challengers and newcomers as rubber stamps for Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Nunn turned that attack back to her usual critique of Washington.
"I have pledged to be an independent, pragmatic and common-sense leader for Georgia," she said, noting some of her disagreements with the Obama administration.
"I certainly wish the president had invested in Savannah Harbor," she said of the long-delayed Georgia project. "I think the president could have done more with Congress to tackle our long-term debt. I think the president could have engaged more business people in his administration."
But, she added, "I don't think any of the folks on the other side will say this: We can achieve better results when we work together."