ATLANTA — For all the wrangling between the tea party and establishment conservatives in this midterm election year, key players from both sides are lining up behind one candidate in Georgia's Republican Senate primary runoff.
Tea party favorite Karen Handel announced Wednesday that she's backing U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston over businessman David Perdue in a July 22 runoff. Some of her notable backers had already committed to Kingston in the runoff.
Her announcement came the same day that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an establishment titan that spent almost $1 million supporting Kingston in the initial primary campaign, announced another statewide ad buy for Kingston. The spot features Georgia Bulldogs football hero and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, finished third in a May 20 primary for one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races. The Republican nominee will face Democrat Michelle Nunn in a Nov. 4 general election that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's administration.
The GOP needs six more senators to claim a majority and cannot afford to lose the seat opened by the retirement of Saxby Chambliss.
Kingston welcomed his former rival, saying she'll help him "unite the conservative family."
Handel was sharply critical of Kingston, an 11-term congressman, and Perdue, a former corporate CEO, leading up to the first round of voting.
"It's the career politicians and the out-of-touch elitists who have gotten us into this mess," she said at one debate.
Her most personal exchanges came with Perdue, who suggested she wasn't qualified for the Senate because she has only a high school diploma. But she still lambasted GOP incumbents like Kingston. "Republicans had control of the House, Senate and White House" during part of the second Bush administration, she said while campaigning. "What did we do? Nothing. We did nothing."
Handel said Wednesday that her criticisms were "in the past." She called Kingston a "consistent, effective conservative" who is "fiercely dedicated to the conservative principles that are the foundation of the Republican Party and that I want to see return to Washington."
Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey said via email that voters still prefer an outsider. "This just goes to show the clear choice he is giving voters," Dickey wrote.
Handel's decision is the latest in a string of developments that allow Kingston to pitch himself as a unifying conservative, but it also highlights the narrowing gap between the archconservative activists and the established powers they have sharply criticized.
Handel said she still believes that Washington needs new blood, though she also said, "Hitting the ground with some political experience is important." She noted that Kingston won 74 percent of the Senate primary vote in the 1st Congressional District he's represented for two decades. "That speaks volumes," Handel said.
Kingston's endorsement list puts the chamber, which has promised to spend lavishly to quash the tea party influence in the midterms, alongside several notable conservatives. National Tea Party Express leader Julianne Thompson and RedState.com editor Erick Erickson, both Georgia residents, initially supported Handel but now back Kingston. The congressman already had an endorsement from Fox News broadcaster Sean Hannity.
That could force Kingston into a tight spot on certain issues in the Senate. The U.S. Chamber supported a Democratic-led overhaul of immigration law and a bipartisan deal to reopen government last fall and raise the nation's borrowing limit. In the House, Kingston sided with tea party interests in opposing both efforts.
Kingston said Wednesday that he sees no conflict. "We are going bring together people who want to reform government, people who want to cut spending, people who want a strong national security," he said.