Suzanne Wood knows what she wants in a U.S. Senate candidate.
“I have a lot of anti-politician feelings. I’m kind of angry,” the Bibb County Republican chairwoman said. “These officials go to Washington and don’t do their job.”
Most local Republicans would probably agree. But they don’t agree on who can best ease this mess, and that makes the upcoming May 20 Republican U.S. Senate primary an impossible-to-predict free-for-all.
The winner is likely to triumph on style and strategy, and as a result, national eyes are watching this race as a harbinger of things to come for Republicans around the country this year.
Will Georgia Republicans pick Rep. Paul Broun, the hardcore, give ‘em hell conservative? Or choose the equally conservative but more measured approaches of Reps. Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey? Will voters reject anyone with Washington ties and go with former state official Karen Handel or businessman David Perdue?
This much is increasingly clear: The clenched-fist ardor that helped the tea party rise in 2010 has cooled, and while candidates and constituents retain an overwhelming passion for a big Washington shakeup, their tone is gentler.
Republican voters do agree they’re seeking two qualities: Someone who can win and who can shake up Washington.
“The big issue is, how can one person make a difference,” said Jayne Govar, a Columbus Realtor.
The next Georgia senator will succeed the genteel Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. Broun fights suspicions he’s too rough for the general electorate.
“There’s a side of him that’s off the rails,” said Douglas Deal, a Macon software developer. He recalled Broun, a physician, telling a Georgia church group in 2012, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
“I’m not extreme at all. I’m an original constitutionalist,” Broun insisted in an interview with The Telegraph. The reason Republicans often lose, he said, is that true conservatives get disgusted with more centrist party candidates and stay home in the general election.
Kingston counters with a calmer approach.
“I don’t think yelling and screaming gets things done,” he said in an interview.
His address to the Rotary Club at LaGrange’s Highland Country Club last week was full of talk about unity.
“He can attract voters other Republicans can’t,” said Shirley Pennebaker, a LaGrange education consultant.
Look at my record, Kingston urged. He doesn’t inch away from his Washington resume -- he’s held top positions on spending panels overseeing agriculture, defense, health, education and retirement security issues.
He tries to deflect the not-conservative-enough charge with ads saying he has the race’s most conservative voting record. The National Journal’s 2013 ratings agree on that point, but the American Conservative Union’s ratings put him below Broun though ahead of Gingrey.
An obstetrician/gynecologist, Gingrey is particularly critical of the Affordable Care Act.
“The president’s government takeover of the health care industry threatens tens of thousands of private practices with the very real possibility they could have to close their doors,” he told constituents recently, “leaving their long-time patients without a place to turn.”
The wild cards are the candidates without Washington ties. Republican voter Bart Tharpe is a retired Macon postal employee who contributed $88,000 to his pension fund over 34 years. He retired three years ago at 52 and figures if he lives to be 92 he’ll draw about $3 million in pension money.
“I know these numbers don’t work,” he said. “Someone has to pay for this.”
He’d be willing to take a cut if it went across the board, and he figures Perdue, a former Dollar General CEO, understands that logic. Perdue emphasizes his independence from Washington and its ways, and it resonates in some quarters.
“He’s a businessman, and we sure don’t need any more lawyers,” Tharpe said.
Handel said she offers a more personal touch. A former Georgia Secretary of State and commission chairwoman in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some of its suburbs, she lost a close Republican primary race for governor in 2010. Handel in an interview said she’ll stand out from the pack because of “a track record of getting conservative results in a tough environment,” as well as a tested grassroots network and personal friendships from her previous runs.
Wood and Deal know that touch. Wood got a note on her birthday; Deal heard from Handel when he was in the hospital. Handel estimated she writes several hundred notes a week to friends and supporters.
Handel also stirred strong interest among women at a Bibb County Republican discussion last week organized by The Telegraph. Chances are the winner of this primary will face Democrat Michelle Nunn. The daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, she is trying to emulate his centrist ways and has the potential to raise plenty of money.
A woman vs. woman race, Republicans are convinced, gives them a special edge. Nunn is the scion of a prominent family. Handel is self-made.
“You look at her and think if she can do it, I can do it. She worked her way up in a competitive male world,” Sherrie Wallace, a Macon mechanical contractor, said of Handel.