ATLANTA — Longtime GOP Rep. Jack Kingston is positioning himself as the Senate candidate in Georgia who can bridge the factions of a splintered party waiting for a nominee to emerge in a pivotal midterm race.
"We've built a coalition that shows conservatives can be united," says the 11-term congressman from Savannah, citing endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to local tea party groups and conservative commentators.
Kingston contends that range of support, along with his record on Capitol Hill, makes him the obvious choice in Tuesday's primary runoff against businessman David Perdue. But the former corporate CEO says Kingston has had his chance, and that Senate needs fewer career politicians and more outsiders with business acumen.
With control of the Senate at stake this fall, Republicans are trying to gain the six seats needed to knock Democrats from their majority. The GOP cannot afford to lose the Georgia seat vacated by retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.
The Democratic candidate is Michelle Nunn, whose father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, was a moderate Democrat who represented Georgia for years.
The runoff features another round in the fight between tea partyers who helped flip control of the House for the GOP in 2010, and establishment Republicans who have had far more success in this year's primaries. Establishment choices have bested tea party challengers in North Carolina, Mississippi and Kentucky.
For Kingston, being the bridge-builder is a delicate exercise for a veteran member of an unpopular Congress who's refusing the label of either faction. Yet it also raises questions about just what kind of senator Kingston would be. Kingston said he'd continue to be "a proven conservative" who uses practical Washington experience without losing touch with constituents.
"We absolutely have to change the status quo in Washington," Kingston, 59, said at a recent campaign stop. "We've made great strides in the House, but we can't pass the baton without a Republican Senate."
He easily can tick off his career ratings from the American Conservative Union, National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association and others. Whatever the organization, the number never dips below 90 percent.
"I'm not a creature of Washington," he says, noting that he still lives in his coastal Georgia district. "I'm a weekday warrior who takes our Georgia values to Washington, and on the weekends I'm back home. ... The people in my district don't call me 'congressman' — doesn't matter how old they are, they call me 'Jack.' They see me at the grocery store, at soccer games."
In a shot at his wealthy opponent, Kingston adds, "My address is listed. Anyone can come knock on my front door."
Perdue, who lives in a gated community and has poured at least $3 million of his own money into the race, dismisses those arguments as a typical Washington answer. "He's had 22 years," Perdue says. "If we want to change Washington, we have to change the people we send there."
Kingston went to Washington as a fresh face who supported term limits. Now he holds a coveted chairmanship of a House Appropriations subcommittee.
Like others, Kingston used that post to set aside federal money for his home district and he bragged about it during past re-election bids. He also was one of the Republicans who backed a ban on earmarks, put into effect after the tea party helped drive the GOP into the House majority in the 2010 elections. Now, he rails against the growth of federal spending.
There are other inconsistencies in Kingston's record.
Kingston doesn't tell voters that he has become a millionaire, which is documented on his congressional financial disclosures. Both Perdue and Kingston were raised in middle-class households with educator parents.
Like most of his fellow House Republicans, Kingston has voted dozens of times against the Affordable Care Act, calling the president's health law a "government takeover of health care." Under Republican President George W. Bush, Kingston voted to create a Medicare drug benefit that expanded spending on the health care programs for older people.
Kingston joined the House GOP in opposing the October 2013 deal that raised the nation's borrowing limit and reopened government after a partial shutdown. But he voted several times in previous administrations to raise the debt ceiling. His more recent position aligns him with the tea party. His past record conforms to the U.S. Chamber and other business interests.
Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Kingston supporter who finished third in the initial voting, said Kingston's record demonstrates an ability to survive and be productive in a complex environment.
As Kingston puts it, "Of course I've learned how to tell my friends no."
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two profiles of the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate ahead of the July 22 runoff election. A profile of David Perdue was sent July 12.