An Analysis of Georgia’s Republican Runoff

Last week, David Perdue clinched the GOP nomination for the state of Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat in the 2014 election cycle, defeating Rep. Jack Kingston – an eleven-term Georgia congressman from the southeast of the state. The policy positions of the two candidates are virtually identical, making it impossible to produce an article solely devoted to a moral analysis contrasting the two candidates. However, given their almost indistinguishable platforms, it becomes possible to analyze the race from a different perspective – that of political science.

Before delving into such analysis, it is important to stress just how similar these two campaigns were in terms of policy positions. The two candidates shared the same vague views on taxation, gun laws, gay marriage, abortion, spending, foreign policy, regulatory policy, etc. Attempts by either to nuance himself from the other were, from a rational perspective, ineffective and a general waste of time. Such squabbles almost entirely pertained to superficialities rather than the actual content of the proposals themselves. As such, the two men can be considered – for all intents and purposes – morally equal in their politics.

There is one exception to this point, which is not so much a policy position as it is a particularly distasteful campaign ploy that – to rational observers – could have served as a glimpse into a candidate’s deeper political ideology. Towards the end of the campaign in the runoff stage, Kingston was unusually critical of Perdue having been a businessman, and he occasionally attacked Perdue for Perdue’s business. While we cannot be sure of Kingston’s motivations for these attacks, a plausible explanation is that Kingston was attacking Perdue for the one thing that Kingston lacked: significant private sector experience (at least in the last twenty-two years). Knowing that this was an area where Perdue held the upper hand, Kingston attempted to belittle it. Whether such actions are indicative of a deeper willingness to attack businessmen (and capitalism, by extension) is unclear, but it could have been cause for more discerning voters (albeit, few overall) to support Perdue.

Beyond that, there are several potential factors that could have contributed to Perdue’s eventual victory. The first, however silly it may seem, is a confused name recognition between David Perdue and his cousin, Georgia’s Fmr. Gov. Sonny Perdue. At a time in which most Americans have trouble naming their U.S. Congressman, it is more than possible that a number of Republican voters saw the name “Perdue” and mistakenly associated it with the fairly popular former governor – the first Republican governor in Georgia since the end of Reconstruction.  At the same time, it is entirely possible that the association was not a mistake, and that some voters favored David Perdue in the same way as they favor members of other political dynasties such as the Clintons, the Kennedys, and the Bushes. (Jason Carter, the Democratic candidate for governor, cannot  – unfortunately for him – hope for the same advantage, as his grandfather Jimmy Carter is not so well-liked, particularly in Georgia. In fact, Jason Carter may experience the opposite effect of negative name association come November). Such associations rest on bad judgment, resting on the assumption that two candidates are as valuable as one another by virtue of them sharing the same surname, but the effect of such associations on elections is not necessarily insignificant.

Additionally, there was some disparity between the geographical focus of the two campaigns, at least as far as can be told without a much lengthier research project into where the two spent the most money. Though the two men both live in the coastal, southeastern part of the state (Perdue actually resides within Kingston’s district), the two men campaigned more aggressively in different areas of the state. Perdue’s campaign primarily concerned itself with the Atlanta area, and the Republican dominated northern suburbs of Marietta, Roswell, Sandy Springs, and Alpharetta. Kingston, oppositely, ran a decentralized campaign, focusing on the rural portions of the state and conservative strongholds outside other cities like Savannah and Augusta. Undoubtedly Kingston campaigned  heavily in Atlanta as well, but while Kingston attempted to campaign heavily across the state, Perdue did only what was necessary to stay relevant elsewhere in the state, allowing him to campaign far more intensely in and around Atlanta.

These different geographical focuses are reflected in the different campaign styles of the two candidates. While Kingston employed a “folksy” campaign with typical Republican guff about family, faith, and the flag (not that Perdue abstained from it), Perdue’s campaign presented a somewhat more “suburban” style — sophisticated and monied but still in touch with the average voter’s concerns. As the state of Georgia has continued to grow and develop in the twenty-first century, the former campaign style has become increasingly untenable, even in primary politics in which the rural vote has always been an integral part of successful candidates’ efforts (particularly within the GOP in recent decades). As the rural portions of the state are only experiencing minor to moderate population growth, Georgia’s cities and suburbs continue to boom, signaling perhaps a new model for victory on the part of successful Republican campaign strategists.

As such, there is a growing electoral strength within the Republican primaries in semi-urban and suburban areas in which “traditional” conservative rhetoric fails to inspire voters. This goes beyond primaries and into the general election, as evidenced by the failure of Lee Anderson (a Republican who ran a principally folksy campaign) to unseat incumbent Rep. John Barrow (D) in the 12th district two years ago. Even when heavily conservative areas northwest of Augusta were added to Barrow’s district following redistricting, and even when Barrow’s hometown of Savannah was placed in another district (Kingtson’s), the Republicans failed to gain the seat.

The strategy proved as successful for Kingston in the 2014 runoff as it was for Anderson in the 2012 general election. Without the support of the more densely populated areas of the electorate, neither could reasonably have won their seats. Worse for Kingston, even with a perceived paucity of Perdue ads in Augusta’s northwestern suburbs, Kingston still lost the two counties – and every other major city in Georgia besides Savannah (the Washington Post has produced several maps of the runoff results, which can be seen here).

There are two potential conclusions to draw from these results. First, the strength of the social conservative wing of the GOP (which is most potent in more rural areas) is decreasing as time goes on and as suburban and urban Republicans distance themselves from those views. This is not to say that Perdue was any less of a social conservative than Kingston in terms of his professed policy positions, but that those views were not as central to his campaign as they were for Kingston. There is a growing segment of Republican voters in the suburbs looking for candidates that represent them rather than their parents or grandparents, and so the influence of ardent, vociferous social conservatives is localizing and lessening. This is further evidenced by the fact that Rep. Paul Broun, the most repellant social conservative in the primary (whatever his economic views), lost before reaching the runoff stage.

However, the changing ideological demographics of Republican voters do not necessarily mean that the ideologies of the candidates have changed much. Again: the professed platforms of Kingston and Perdue were virtually identical, lacking any significant differences. They both fall within what is commonly referred to as the “Republican Establishment,” while ascribing to two different rhetorical wings of it. One wing attempts to achieve victory by presenting the GOP as the party of the suburban middle class, while the other hopes to do the same by acting as the representative of “the heartland.” Republican voters are often faced with the alternative between a George Bush and a Marco Rubio, giving the illusion of a significant choice despite the essential policy similarity between the two candidates that is masked by differences in rhetoric and style.

However, the most interesting portion of the race is the indication of a continuing trend of anti-incumbent sentiment within the Republican Party. Though neither of the candidates were “incumbents” in the sense that they currently held the seat in question, Kingston was certainly seen as the “incumbent” or “Washington insider” due to his lengthy tenure on Capitol Hill.

Since the rise of the Tea Party, Republican voters’ aversion to “career politicians” has grown (though, to my knowledge, the Democrats have no analogous movement). In fact, Republican consulting firms have increasingly engaged in the so-called “black market” of campaigning against incumbents, an act that once was considered a professional death sentence. Veteran incumbents were both powerful and influential, and challenging one and losing meant being blacklisted by sometimes large portions of the party.

Now anti-incumbent campaigns are commonplace – not widely successful (e.g., Sens. McCain, Graham, and McConnell all surviving primary challengers), but certainly more common and more publicized. As campaign finance restrictions have been overturned by the courts, the ability of political outsiders to raise funds and to take advantage of the rise in anti-incumbent sentiment. Perdue was able to successfully do both, even without Kingston being a textbook incumbent in this race. Every Georgia congressman that vied for the open Senate seat lost. A Washington outsider won.

As far as the battle for capitalism goes, the race is immediately significant only insofar as a Republican-controlled Senate could potentially do more to stave off Pres. Obama’s extensive use of executive authority to bypass the legislature, and the state of Georgia needed a viable Republican candidate to offer this November. Perdue may well have the sort of appeal needed to defeat Michelle Nunn in November, being able to match her name recognition and suburban appeal in a way that Kingston could not have. In a broader sense, the race reflects the potentiality of certain trends within the GOP: a rhetorical divide within the GOP Establishment over the party’s image for the near future, the waning influence of social conservatives amidst the rise of a socially liberalized suburban voting bloc in the GOP, and the continued anti-incumbent attitude amongst Republicans. These trends may soon prove ephemeral, but signs suggest that they are still vibrant enough to make 2016 anyone’s game. For now, the people of Georgia should be more concerned about the progress of the race leading into November, and what policies they could potentially expect from a Senator David Perdue.

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