Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., greets supporters as he arrives at an annual cookout. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
GLENNVILLE, Ga. — Rep. Jack Kingston, who’s represented Savannah in Congress for the last two decades, was at home Thursday evening in nearby Tattnall County, where elected officials and candidates streamed in to put their face in front of the loads of sheriffs, police and first responders gathered on the grounds of a rural pond house.
The Republican was one of three candidates vying for the party’s Senate nomination to attend the 27th annual Law Enforcement Appreciation Cookout, held just outside Kingston’s district. More than 1,000 people from around the state were on hand, sipping light beer and munching on pork barbecue, smoked chicken, Cadillac rice and Brunswick stew. Kingston, the only candidate with a campaign booth, could barely turn around without running into someone he knew, inevitably wearing his campaign sticker.
Southeast Georgia is Kingston country. His campaign has been working for months to broaden his brand beyond this area and into vote-rich Atlanta ahead of the competitive May 20 primary. But on this day, the congressman was sewing up his base.
“While it’s good to come down here doing a little politicking — nothing wrong with that — I’m glad to be here because I like Tattnall County, and I’m going to keep coming no matter what happens,” Kingston said on stage in very brief remarks to the crowd.
See more images from the cookout in the slideshow below:
The other Senate candidates on hand were former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue, who is a first-time candidate and cousin of a former governor, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who narrowly lost a bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 2010. Democrat Michelle Nunn’s husband, Ron Martin, came on behalf of the likely nominee.
Rep. John Barrow, who now represents this county, appeared to be one of the few Democrats attending the nonpartisan festivity. But Barrow — a top target of national Republicans — worked the crowd as smoothly as Kingston.
One of three members of Congress in the Senate primary, Kingston is regularly in the top two in primary polling, along with Perdue. He turned in the strongest first fundraising quarter among Republicans, launched his fourth statewide TV ad Thursday morning, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston just an hour before the cookout kicked off.
“What we’re doing is combining high tech and high touch, and we’re doing well in both categories,” Kingston said in an interview. “We’re on target, so we feel good about it.”
Still, many in the party believe the unpredictable race for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is wide open. With no candidate likely to take a majority of the vote next month, it’s a fight to finish in the top two and advance to the July 22 runoff.
Handel, who has trailed Kingston and Perdue in fundraising and airtime, launched her first statewide TV ad this week featuring Sarah Palin’s recent appearance in Georgia on Handel’s behalf — which the campaign said brought a fundraising surge of $200,000 in two weeks. The Handel campaign has felt a renewed sense of momentum since a video emerged of Perdue denigrating Handel’s lack of a college degree during a January campaign appearance. The free media came at the right time.
In an interview, Perdue said he was “a little overzealous” with that comment and that any Republican nominated will be “more qualified and a better candidate than anybody the Democrats are going to put up.”
Decked out in a blue blazer, jeans and brown boots, Perdue pointed to the 63 years combined his four leading opponents have spent as elected officials to highlight his unique position in the race as the only one among them to have never held public office. The other top candidates are Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, two of the most conservative members of the House.
“Frankly, we’ve hit a nerve,” Perdue said. “I’ve basically jumped up in the polls a little bit, primarily because of this simple message — that hey, if you want different results, you need to send a different type of person to Washington.”
State Sen. Tommie Williams, who represents Glennville and is backing Perdue, said the businessman has “all sorts of acumen” and is “a solid conservative on social issues as well.”
Former Rep. Lindsay Thomas, D-Ga., who preceded Kingston in the 1st District, sported a Kingston sticker and said he’s supporting his congressman for Senate. “The Senate is a very important seat, it’s a complex place, it takes a long time to understand the rules and build relations…and I think this race should go to someone who has that kind of experience,” Thomas said.
Also at the cookout were Gov. Nathan Deal, Attorney General Sam Olens, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the state commissioners of Insurance and Agriculture — who are all up for re-election this year and used their 15 seconds of stage time.
At the pond house of Wayne Dasher, a board member at the Georgia Dept. of Corrections, the star of the night may have been the Cadillac rice, a soup proudly brewed in a 60-gallon pot by Wayne County Commissioner Jerry “Shag” Wright, who offered early tastes and the recipe.
The Senate candidates will all meet again Saturday in Augusta for their sixth formal debate hosted by the state party. It falls two days before the voter-registration deadline and one month before the primary.