CARTERSVILLE — As they battle for Georgia's Republican nomination for the U.S Senate, Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue appeal almost exclusively to conservative voters.
That bucks the recent example of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran surviving a primary challenge with help from black voters and union members typically aligned with Democrats and, along with Republican Senate primaries Tennessee, South Carolina and elsewhere, serves as a reminder that the GOP's core is still white conservatives, even as party leaders acknowledge the need to widen their appeal in an increasingly diverse nation.
Perdue and Kingston meet Tuesday in a runoff to determine who will face Democrat Michelle Nunn in one of the nation's most significant midterm general elections. Republicans need to hold onto retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat as part of their drive to win a Senate majority for the final two years of President Barack Obama's administration.
In Georgia, as in Mississippi, voters don't register by party and the only voters who can't cast GOP runoff ballots Tuesday are the 426,000 who cast Democratic primary ballots in May. That leaves more than 4.5 million eligible voters, including many who lean Democratic in general elections.
Yet aides for both campaigns say they expect turnout to fall well below Republicans' primary turnout of 605,000.
Kingston, an 11-term House veteran from the coastal 1st Congressional District, says he's sticking to his "great coalition" of "business groups, agriculture, Republican Party regulars, tea party conservatives." It's his "natural group," Kingston explains.
Perdue, a former corporate CEO making his first bid for elected office, has run from the start as an "outsider," the moniker emblazoned on the side of his campaign bus. But in the runoff campaign, he's taken to calling himself a "conservative outsider."
"My voters came out in the primary," he said after a recent campaign stop, "and if I get my voters out again, we win this runoff."
Each candidate insists that the nation must have a Republican-run Senate. Both are critical of President Barack Obama, with Kingston even saying that impeachment proceedings aren't out of the question in the GOP-run House.
And, perhaps most importantly, both campaigns say they expect turnout to fall well below the 605,355 ballots cast two months ago.
It's all a stark contrast to a Mississippi primary where Cochran won a June 24 runoff after trailing tea party conservative Chris McDaniel three weeks earlier. And it underscores that Republicans' best strategies in midterm elections, when Democrats historically struggle to get enough young and minority voters to the polls, don't necessarily help the party rebuild a winning national coalition in presidential elections.
Cochran, a six-term senator facing his first tough re-election in 30 years, made an open appeal to Democrats — most of whom are black in his state — with his argument that Mississippi can't afford to lose his seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he's helped secure billions of dollars in federal aid for everything from defense contractors and universities to rebuilding programs after hurricanes.
Returns show it worked. Statewide turnout increased by about 20 percent over the first round, but turnout in majority black counties grew by 43 percent. McDaniel continues to protest the results, alleging "irregularities" that he's not proven, and he accuses Cochran of "selling out" the conservative movement. Many Republicans in Washington, though, hailed the results as proof the party can grow.
"If Thad did get a bump from African-American participation in the Republican primary, that's probably the best news I've heard in a long time," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the day after Cochran's victory.
But with more time to assess the political playing field in Mississippi and elsewhere, some Republicans say the Perdue-Kingston example is more far more reflective the GOP's reality.
"Mississippi was a situation that could happen only in that race," said Georgia Republican Chip Lake, a consultant who isn't aligned with Kingston or Perdue.
Lake noted that McDaniel's archconservative, anti-government rhetoric, complete with national tea party groups sending volunteers to "observe" the runoff election, turned off, if not scared many black voters. Further, he said, "everyone in Mississippi, including black voters, already knew and liked Thad Cochran."
Between Kingston and Perdue, Lake said, there's no incumbent who's spent decades steering federal money to Georgia, and there's no challenger who stokes embers of the South's racial discord.
Georgia Democratic Chairman DuBose Porter quipped, "Neither of the Republican candidates has any crossover appeal, so there's no need for them to try."
Graham, though he celebrated Cochran's cross-over success, won his own crowded Republican primary in June by reaching out to the GOP core despite some conservative unhappiness with him.
"Lindsey decided a long time ago that we were going to win the Republican primary with Republicans," said Katon Dawson, one of his campaign advisers. "He worked hard for 18 months to make the conservative argument to conservatives."
In Tennessee, Sen. Lamar Alexander heads into an August primary with polls showing him with a wide lead despite a challenge from the right. His top adviser, Tom Ingram, said Alexander has no need to deviate from his identity as a "conservative who gets things done."
Lake, the Georgia consultant, said those dynamics may do little to help the GOP expand for the future. But, he said, "The fact is every election is its own election. ... And all politics really is local."