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Chamber-backed Republicans win in Georgia Senate primary

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(Bloomberg) — The two Georgia Republicans who will compete for a U.S. Senate nomination in a July runoff vote are hardly known outside their home state — and that may be the good news for the party.

The candidate in yesterday’s seven-candidate primary race who garnered the most national attention — Paul Broun, a Tea Party-backed member of the U.S. House who once called evolution a lie “straight from the pit of Hell” — won just 10 percent of the vote. His defeat was a top priority for a business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bent on nominating the most competitive Republicans in the 2014 elections.

The two top finishers set for the July 22 runoff were David Perdue, once chief executive officer of Dollar General Corp., and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston. Both will give Republicans their best shot to defeat Democrat Michelle Nunn.

“The Republicans appear to have avoided the worst-case scenario,” said non-partisan campaign analyst Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report. They “dodged that bullet.”

The potential loss of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s seat would make Republicans’ effort to win the net six seats needed to take control of the U.S. Senate more difficult. Democrats view the Georgia race as one of their best chances to pick up a Republican-held seat in a cycle where they’re defending 21 slots, compared with 15 for Republicans.

Having Perdue and Kingston fight it out until the runoff is “an obvious advantage for the Democrats,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “The Republicans have been attacking each other now for months,” Black said. “And Nunn has gotten a free pass.”

Nunn, 47, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, easily won the Democratic primary against three opponents.

Both Perdue, who was also CEO of Reebok International Ltd., and Kingston have strong ties to the business community and raised more money than the other Republicans in the primary. Along with Broun, their challengers included third-place finisher Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who counted 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin among her supporters.

Kingston, who last month won the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, raised $5.6 million and had $1.3 million cash on hand as of April 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.

As of the end of April, Perdue, 64, had only about $470,000 in cash on hand, having raised a total of $4.6 million.

Perdue, a cousin of Georgia’s former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, has touted his status as a Washington outsider. That’s a contrast he’ll continue to draw with Kingston.

Perdue’s first television ad in early February depicted his fellow Republican candidates as a lineup of crying babies.

“If these politicians had any understanding of the free- enterprise system and knew how to make a difference, wouldn’t they have done it already?” he said in the ad before asking voters to help him change the “childish behavior” in Washington.

In an ad that began airing earlier this month, Perdue zeroed in on Kingston, criticizing his “more than two decades” of “Washington big-spender experience.”

Kingston, 59, who first won election to Congress in 1992, has targeted Perdue with a baby ad of his own, in which he depicts Perdue as an infant with cake all over his face. Perdue “chewed up businesses” and is responsible for the loss of 8,000 jobs, according to the ad.

Democrats are optimistic about their prospects, said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Michelle Nunn will continue to grow her campaign and raise money” while the Republicans “become even more divided,” he said. “And it’s not going to end until July.”

Nunn had raised $6.6 million and had $3.7 million in cash on hand as of the end of April, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In a statement last night, Nunn accused her Republican opponents of “embracing acrimony and inflexibility.”

“It’s that kind of absolute failure to work together that’s causing Washington to be so dysfunctional,” Nunn said.

Like Perdue, Nunn has never held elected office and Republicans have cast her as an untested candidate. In a May 14 e-mail, the National Republican Senatorial Committee accused her of not being “prepared for the big stage.”

As they’re doing in Senate races across the country, Republicans are working to tie Nunn to President Barack Obama, who lost Georgia in 2012 to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points.

Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, chairman of the NRSC, said in a statement last night that “Perdue and Kingston provide a stark contrast to President Obama and Harry Reid’s top recruit Michelle Nunn who repeatedly refuses to take a stand on the issues including Obamacare.”

In an interview with MSNBC television that aired this week, Nunn said it was “impossible to look back retrospectively” and say whether she would have supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The Georgia race has generated more TV ads than any Senate contest besides North Carolina, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG. Of the 19,029 spots aired through the cusp of the primary, Kingston had run the most — 4,969 — followed by Nunn with 4,360 and Perdue with 3,291, according to CMAG.

Republican runoffs also will be held in the three Republican-leaning districts that Kingston, Broun and the contest’s third sitting congressman — Phil Gingrey — gave up to run for the Senate.

–With assistance from Greg Giroux in Washington.

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