Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue were locked in a tight battle in Tuesday's runoff for the Republican Senate nomination to face Democrat Michelle Nunn in one of the marquee races of the 2014 general election that could tilt control of the upper chamber.
Three hours after polls closed, the vote was still being tallied, the result of the race up in the air. With 87.2 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, was leading Mr. Kingston, an 11-term congressman, by a margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent — a gap of almost 6,000 votes statewide.
Voters also headed to the polls to cast ballots in three House runoff races.
Former state Sen. Barry Lourdermilk cut short former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr's political comeback bid in the 11th Congressional District GOP primary race. Mr. Loudermilk, a tea party favorite, handily defeated the man who once led the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton, leading by more than 40 percentage points early in the evening.
In the 10th Congressional District, Baptist pastor Jody Hice defeated Mike Collins, and state Sen. Buddy Carter bested surgeon Bob Johnson in the 1st Congressional District.
Those three winners all are expected to go on to capture their Republican-leaning districts' seats in the November election.
But the outcome of the general election race to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss is more in doubt — thanks to Ms. Nunn, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn who, to the delight of Democrats, stepped down from her leadership post at President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light to seek the seat.
Since then, Ms. Nunn easily won the Democratic nomination and has shown herself to be a fundraising powerhouse. Over the last three months, she raised $3.45 million, outpacing both of her possible GOP rivals.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said the general election race is a toss-up.
"The reality is that Nunn has gotten a big head start on money and organization," Ms. Duffy said. "She has been a candidate for a year, and she hasn't gotten a whole lot of criticism. Whereas the Republican is going to have picked up some negatives from the primary and the runoff race."
It is among about a dozen contests that will help decide whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic leadership team continue to call the shots in the Senate during Mr. Obama's final two years in The White House.
Republicans need to pick up six net seats to flip control of the Senate, and a loss in Georgia could torpedo their chances of doing so.
"Republicans have to hold Georgia to have their best shot at taking control of the Senate," said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Heading into the GOP primary, Democrats hoped that Republicans would nominate one of the more conservative candidates — either Rep. Paul C. Broun or Rep. Phil Gingrey — in the crowded May 20 primary. But Mr. Perdue and Mr. Kingston emerged as the top two vote-getters and advanced to the two-person runoff race.
Still, Democrats see the Senate races in Georgia and Kentucky, where Alison Lundergan Grimes is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as their best bets of picking up a GOP-held seat on Election Day.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls shows that Mr. McConnell holds a slim lead in Kentucky, while Ms. Nunn has a slight edge over Mr. Kingston and runs neck and neck with Mr. Perdue in Georgia.
Mr. Gonzales called Ms. Nunn a "very credible candidate" but said the jury is still out on how she will perform in the general election because she is untested.
"We don't know yet how she will hold up to increased scrutiny and criticism," Mr. Gonzales said. "She has had the luxury of running on her own basically so far. She has been able to say whatever she says without a lot of pushback."
Republicans say that Ms. Nunn also could get a boost from the ongoing ethics investigation into Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who is being challenged in the fall by Democrat Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
But they are confident that Mr. Kingston or Mr. Perdue will win in part because of blowback against President Obama and his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
"He is a major drag on Nunn," said David Johnson, a Georgia-based GOP strategist. "That is the one thing going for all these Republican candidates, because you can tie the Democrats to Barack Obama and among white voters, Obama is lethal."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, has telegraphed its general election attacks, calling Ms. Nunn the "top recruit" of Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid, and accusing her of refusing "to take a stand on issues including Obamacare."
"Republicans' victory tonight and momentum will finally force Nunn to come out of hiding and start answering the tough questions that she's ducked up until now," said Brook Hougesen, an NRSC spokesperson.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is looking to fire up its base through the "Bannock Street project," which aims to turn out the single women, minorities and young voters that have played a big role in presidential contests but sat out midterm elections.
The DSCC also signaled that it plans to make the case that Mr. Kingston has the baggage of an unpopular incumbent lawmaker and to paint Mr. Perdue as another rich white guy who is cut from the same cloth as unsuccessful 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
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