ATLANTA - Georgia's Republican Senate primary runoff pits a multimillionaire businessman who's never held public office against a congressman who's spent more than two decades on Capitol Hill.
David Perdue of Sea Island, the former CEO of Reebok, Dollar General and a North Carolina textile firm called Pillowtex, led seven Republican candidates Tuesday with 30.6 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah -- who has represented coastal Georgia in Congress for 21 years -- was second with 25.8 percent.
Now they start from scratch for a July 22 runoff.
Perdue sought immediately to capitalize on his outsider status, while Kingston accused Perdue of overselling his business record and glossing over an insufficiently conservative record. It's not the simple tea party vs. establishment matchup that could have defined the race, but it gives Republican voters clear choices of style in the eight-week runoff campaign.
The winner will face Democrat Michelle Nunn in a general election that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's administration.
As he has from the start of his campaign, Perdue told supporters Tuesday night the runoff is about choosing a private sector leader over an elected official. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Paul Broun and Rep. Phil Gingrey are already out of the way, finishing in the next three spots behind Perdue and Kingston.
Perdue says a $17 trillion debt is the nation's most pressing issue and that longtime politicians have wasted opportunities to address it already.
"I've been involved with fixing big problems all my life," Perdue said at his campaign party Tuesday night. "I just think if we want different results in Washington, we have to send a different type of person to Washington."
Shortly after his celebratory speech, he sent out a fundraising email.
"Our outsider message clearly resonated in this election, and it'll hold true in our head-to-head race," Perdue wrote.
At a nearby Atlanta hotel, Kingston extoled his experience as proof of his conservative credentials, while he accused Perdue of overselling his business record.
"I know my voting record is a matter of public scrutiny, and you will be hearing about it," Kingston said. "But I will say to my opponent, so is your business record, and we will be talking about that."
He recounted Perdue's tenure at Pillowtex, where Perdue presided over layoffs and left the firm months before it closed. "My opponent says, `Trust me with America,'" Kingston said. "What about those 8,000 Pillowtex employees who trusted their jobs to him and he fired them."
Perdue, recognized on Wall Street as a turnaround specialist, notes that he took over Pillowtex after a bankruptcy and says the company's eventual downfall resulted from unmanageable pension obligations incurred before his arrival.
The matchup pits the two biggest spenders in the GOP field. Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, put more than $2 million from his own fortune into his campaign. He blanketed the state with ads touting his "outsider" message and mocking Kingston and the other experienced politicians as crying babies.
Kingston spent $4.3 million and had about $1 million in advertising support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
A Republican operative not affiliated with either campaign credited the Chamber of Commerce's late advertising blitz with rescuing Kingston's campaign after his own biographical ads failed to provide him with a bump in the polls.
"He needs to send the Chamber of Commerce a really nice present with a really pretty bow," said Chip Lake.
The Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Tuesday night promising to continue its direct involvement in Georgia.
The race doesn't fall clearly along the internal GOP fault lines that have rumbled since the tea party emerged after Obama's election and pulled Republicans to the right.
Kingston's chamber endorsement gives him some claim to being an "establishment" candidate, given that the political titan has promised this cycle to focus on squelching tea party uprisings in Republican primaries. But he's also worked to win over tea party conservatives. He bucked the chamber by opposing an increase in the nation's borrowing limit last year and with his opposition to any immigration law changes that grant legal status to some of the millions of people who are in the United States illegally.
And he boasts endorsements from archconservative luminaries like Virginia activist Brent Bozell and Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
Perdue counters with an endorsement from radio host and failed presidential candidate Herman Cain, and he generally follows the party line on social issues, taxes and spending.
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