ATLANTA - Michelle Nunn easily won the Democratic nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday, with the party hoping she can thwart the GOP's hopes of taking control of the chamber for the last two years of President Barack Obama's term.
Early unofficial returns showed Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, had 76 percent of the vote against her three opponents, with about 9 percent of precincts reporting.
In the Republican race, three congressmen - Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah - faced off against former Dollar General CEO David Perdue and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Early unofficial returns showed Kingston leading with 32 percent of the vote to Perdue's 28 percent and Handel's 17 percent. That represented about 9 percent of precincts reporting.
A July 22 runoff was likely given the crowded field of well-known and well-funded candidates and state rules that require a candidate to receive 50 percent plus one vote to advance to the general election.
The Republican primary fight has been closely watched nationally, with Republicans needing just six seats to claim a majority in the Senate. Nunn is considered a formidable opponent, and Republicans can ill afford to lose the seat, which opened when Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced plans to retire. Although the state has voted reliably Republican in recent years, Democrats see an opening with changing demographics in the state - a growing minority population and residents moving in from out of state.
Kingston, a longtime congressman, dominated in fundraising throughout the GOP race and drew support from dozens of state and local officials. Of the three congressmen, Kingston was considered the strongest to secure a spot in a runoff and received the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent nearly $1 million in TV and online ads promoting him.
Perdue, a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, saw his standing in the polls rise in the weeks leading up the election due in part to his early and effective TV ads depicting his four opponents as crying babies who have had their chance as elected officials to fix the nation's problems. Perdue, who made millions working at Dollar General, contributed more than $2.1 million of his own money to the race, which helped pay for those early ads that also championed him as the outsider in the race.
Handel also sought to claim the outsider mantle, running against the three congressmen with a message that they had spent a combined 42 years in Washington. Throughout the race, Handel trailed in fundraising but benefited from being the only candidate to win a statewide office before. She built momentum in the final month with the help of a comment by Perdue and endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson and former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Perdue's comment dismissing Handel's lack of a college degree fired up her supporters but didn't appear to hurt him in later polls. Kingston's early TV ads focused on his frugal nature, likely to counter attacks for his time spent on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. In later debates, Handel, Gingrey and Kingston attacked Perdue over his business record and comments he made suggesting that spending cuts alone couldn't fix the nation's fiscal problems. His opponents argued that meant he would support tax increases, which Perdue dismissed as a "deceitful" attack and pointed to a pledge he had signed not to raise taxes.
Gingrey focused his campaign on the metro Atlanta area and his pledge to repeal the federal health care law in his first term "or go home," while Broun sought to line up tea party support with his plan of evaluating legislation by whether it's right/moral, constitutional, necessary and affordable.
Marilyn Neff, 71, a retired nurse from Marietta, said she initially considered Broun and Gingrey because of their conservative records but ultimately decided on Handel.
"She could bring some fresh blood to Washington, and she's been very successful politically," said Neff, who briefly considered Perdue but bristled at his comments about Handel's lack of a college degree. "I just didn't feel that was necessary to get his point across."
The comment also turned off Sant Perez, 55, an Atlanta sales manager for a television station, who initially considered Perdue, Kingston and Handel. He ultimately voted for Kingston, saying Perdue's comments made him seem elitist.
"I like Handel, but I think Kingston has a better shot" to beat Nunn because of his experience and more moderate views, Perez said.
The other Republicans in the race were patent lawyer Art Gardner and network engineer Derrick Grayson. Neither had raised much money and trailed in the polls. On the Democratic side, former state lawmaker Steen Miles, psychiatrist Branko Radulovacki and ROTC instructor Todd Anthony Robinson were also on the ballot.