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Kingston Counts on Hill Connections in Senate Runoff

Kingston, seen here campaigning in Glennville, Ga., this spring, is not shying away from his Washington ties ahead of the Georgia runoff. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston’s Senate campaign is benefiting from the help of countless friends on Capitol Hill, eschewing the relentless efforts of David Perdue to paint him as a big-spending insider.

The primary runoff campaign will end next week, amid a torrent of negative advertising and after a heated debate Sunday. The nine-week overtime race between Kingston and Perdue, a former Reebok and Dollar General CEO, concludes on July 22.

Perdue once again highlighted Kingston’s 22 years in Congress in the campaign-closing TV ad he released this week. But Kingston, a veteran congressional appropriator, is hardly running from his record or his connections.

“Rarely have I seen two candidates more comfortable with their respective positions,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committeeman from Georgia. “Jack is more than comfortable being the insider, trying to make the case that with his experience he can make an immediate difference. And Perdue is comfortable being the outsider, saying D.C. is broken and it’s time to send someone new.”

That’s been Perdue’s position for months, even before he and Kingston advanced beyond the crowded May 20 primary. Of course, the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is no average “outsider” candidate — he boosted his campaign late last month with another $500,000 out of pocket, pushing his personal investment in the race to more than $3 million.

Still, as his final ad makes clear, Perdue’s main argument is that Washington will never change if the same people keep getting elected. During the primary, Perdue regularly grouped Kingston in with his fellow Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, as well as former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

“The decision in this election is very simple,” Perdue says in the ad. “If you like what’s happening in Washington, vote for Jack Kingston.”

Kingston and his allies believe their counterargument is the stronger case, that his record and experience will allow him to be more influential in the Senate. And despite his time on the Appropriations Committee and conventional wisdom at the outset of the campaign, Kingston has plenty of conservative support — including an endorsement Wednesday from Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and the backing of one of his former congressional opponents.

“I think experience does count,” said Gingrey, who endorsed Kingston two weeks after the primary. “This business of, ‘Well, throw the bums out’ — well my gosh you’ve got to be careful about who the bums are, and don’t paint us all with the same broad brush. . . . Jack’s a hard worker, he’s a good family guy, and I think he’ll do a good job in the Senate.”

The winner will emerge as the early favorite against Democrat Michelle Nunn for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The race is rated Favored Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

During the pre-runoff fundraising period from May 1 to July 2, Kingston collected more than $100,000 in donations from some three-dozen of his congressional colleagues. That includes at least 30 House members and seven senators — six of whom previously served with Kingston in the House.

The support of his colleagues hardly ends there; many of his fellow Georgia congressmen are helping Kingston get out the vote.

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., who was elected this month as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is holding both a fundraiser and grass-roots event for Kingston on Friday in Duluth. The booming Atlanta suburbs are crucial to any statewide race, but it’s a particular target area for Kingston, who hails from Savannah and needs to expand on his base in South Georgia.

“Everyone is working hard,” Woodall chief of staff Derick Corbett said of most of Georgia’s GOP delegation. “They all are doing similar things, trying to host fundraisers, trying to create the tools he needs to win, pushing out his message to their grass-roots people, trying to motivate turnout.”

Both candidates are backed by separate super PACs, with the ads focusing on Kingston. Citizens for a Working America PAC reported in late June more than $1 million spent on ads attacking the congressman, and Southern Conservatives Fund has spent more than $600,000 since the primary on ads supporting him.

Kingston also has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent more on his behalf than on any other race. That includes about $1.4 million since the primary, and more than $2.3 million overall.

It may seem surprising the chamber would spend so much against a former CEO of major corporations. Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director, explained the strategy when asked about its activity in the race.

“David Perdue actively sought the Chamber’s endorsement and the meeting did not go well for him,” Engstrom said. “We believe the choice is clear. Jack Kingston is the only candidate in this race with a demonstrated record of supporting job-creating policies, working to cut the federal budget and he has never voted for a tax increase. Jack has the experience Georgians need in the U.S. Senate, and we are proud to stand with him.”

By all accounts, the race is close with just days to go. Two automated polls released over the past week found Kingston with small leads, but in a midsummer, low-turnout runoff, predicting who actually will vote is undoubtedly challenging. There also is a runoff to replace Kingston in his 1st District, which could help get voters likely to support him out to the polls.

Georgia Republican consultant Chip Lake said Perdue could have a slight advantage given the outsider-vs.-insider narrative he’s constructed within the current political environment, noting that Kingston’s support from Washington serves as a “double-edged sword.”

But, Lake said, “If anybody can overcome the obstacles that are inherent for a member of Congress running for statewide office, it would be Jack Kingston.”

Related stories:

How a Democrat Could Win a Senate Seat in Georgia

Jack Kingston Works His Base at Rural Cookout

Georgia Republicans Brawl for Conservative Mantle in Senate Debate

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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