Conservative groups are starting to pick sides in Georgia’s crowded Republican U.S. Senate primary, underscoring how split the party is — something Democrats hope their candidate, Michelle Nunn, can exploit to score an upset victory in November.
Three sitting congressman are competing for the Republican nomination, as are former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue.
Rep. Paul Broun scored an early momentum boost Tuesday when he won the endorsement Tuesday of the Madison Project, a conservative group that supports insurgent Republicans. He also has the backing of Citizens United Political Victory Fund, which supports small-government conservatives.
But Mr. Broun trails his two congressional colleagues, Reps. Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey, in cash on hand as of the beginning of the year.
The seat is being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring after two terms.
Georgia’s seat is one of two pickup opportunities, along with Kentucky, for Democrats, who otherwise face a difficult Senate map this year with a number of party incumbents facing re-election in red-leaning states.
Analysts said Republicans should have the advantage in Georgia, which remains a conservative stronghold, but said that could change.
“Right now it is Republicans’ to lose and, indeed, if Michelle Nunn were to be elected it would not be so much that people — at least the swing vote — voted for her, but rather they voted against the Republican nominee,” said Charles S. Bullock III, political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Mr. Bullock said that grassroots conservatives and tea partiers are lining up behind Mr. Broun and Mr. Gingrey, while business interests and members of the state’s GOP establishment have a soft spot for Mr. Kingston.
Mr. Kingston had $3.4 million cash on hand at the beginning of the year, while Mr. Gingrey had $2.3 million and Mr. Broun had less than $200,000. Mr. Perdue had nearly $1.8 million, while Ms. Handel reported slightly more than $300,000.
For her part Ms. Nunn, daughter of former longtime Sen. Sam Nunn, scored a huge symbolic victory by outraising each of the Republicans in the final quarter of 2013, taking in $1.6 million.
Political observers say the Republican nomination will likely be determined in a two-man runoff because it will be hard for any of the candidates to win the necessary 50 percent of the vote in the primary. The primary is expected to take place on May 20, with a runoff on July 22, according to TheGreenPapers.com.
That could help explain why other groups such as The Club for Growth — which ranked Mr. Broun as the top conservative in the 2012 House — have yet to take sides. “We’re watching the race,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club.
The Chamber for Commerce also has yet to weigh in on the race, though it has signaled it plans to play a larger role in Republican primaries after watching tea party-backed candidates win the nomination in previous years but then lose to Democrats in general elections that political observers said were winnable.
Mr. Bullock said the Nunn candidacy could get a boost from the nomination of either Mr. Broun or Mr. Gingrey, who he said have some of the “foot-in-mouth disease” that sank the 2012 Senate candidacies of Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock.
“I don’t think, say a Gingrich or a Broun supporter, if their candidates are eliminated, will vote for a Michelle Nunn,” he said. “On the other hand, if Broun were to get the nomination, then there might will be some establishment types that might end up voting for Nunn.”
Mr. Broun claims to be the first member of Congress to have called President Obama a “socialist who embraces Marxist-Leninist policies.” He also grabbed headlines for saying that evolutionary theories are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is playing up the notion that the GOP primary race has devolved into a “right-right circus” that is likely to produce another “extreme candidate” like Mr. Akin, whose 2012 Senate campaign collapsed after he said the female body has ways of rejecting pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”
“This latest development in Georgia’s already messy Republican primary further highlights the problems Republicans face here while Michelle Nunn continues to strengthen her campaign as she travels the state and builds her organization,” said Justin Barasky, a DSCC spokesman. “No wonder national Republicans are worried.”
In the endorsement, Jim Ryun, the chairman of the Madison Project, called Mr. Broun a “constitutional warrior” and said that no one running for office has a stronger record when it comes to fighting for smaller government, pro-life issues and traditional marriage.
“He has been inviolable, while even the fiercest conservative fighters have succumbed to the establishment meat grinder in D.C.” Mr. Ryun said. “Broun is the consummate constitutional champion who puts people and principle before politics. That is why his leadership is needed in the United States Senate, which is full of governing-class elites from both parties who seek endless growth of the federal government.”